Activist Urge Locals to Attend
Get rid of the dams.
That was the rallying cry at a meeting held last week at Ketchum's Environmental Resource Center, where Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited executive director Mitch Sanchotena arrived from Boise and rallied the faithful to demand that the federal government remove four federal dams on the Lower Snake River that conservatioinists and wildlife officials have insisted are forcing salmon and steelhead into extinction.
"This is a crossroads for steelhead and salmon," Sanchotena said. "This is our last chance."
Sanchotena is hoping that salmon and steelhead activists will crowd meetings, which are being held throughout the Northwest to solicit public opinion on the issue of dam breaching. "We've got to dominate these hearings," he said. "We've got to show them that they can't sweep us under the rug."
It is disappointing, Sanchotena said, that no prominent local politicians have yet come out in support of breaching the dams, saying that they've all sold out to industry. "This natioin has the best Congress money can buy," he said. "And we don't have any of it."
Besides, he says, "Bureaucracy is like water running downhill -- it will always take the path of least resistance."
According to Sanchotena, the issue is about more than just saving fish; it's about saving a large chunk of Idaho's economy. Sanchotena estimated that a restored steelhead fishing industry would bring $200 million a year into the state's economy, compared to the estimated $90 million currently coming in.
"If everything is balanced on the dollar, bringing these fish back is a huge economic boon," said Scott Schnebly, owner of Lost River Outfitters, Inc. and a proponent of breaching the dams.
Another issue Sanchotena raised is one of accountability, as he urged those in attendance to hold the federal government responsible for promises to mitigate the damage done to aquatic life when the dams were built. "Pay the bill or get the hell out of the region," Sanchotena demanded.
The federal government, he says, has tried to mitigate the damage with hatcheries. But according to Sanchotena, there's a big difference between wild fish and hatchery fish. "We want restored fisheries," he said. "We want wild fish."
But what's it going to take to force the feds to breach the dams?
"It's going to take public sentiment," Schebly says.
And Sanchotena is hopeful that the public is coming around. "The media likes us," he said, adding, "I think society is on our side."
But whether or not the public is on his side, Sanchotena is painfully aware that no local politicians have yet loaned their support for dam breaching. "What we don't have on this side is a politician," he said. "We don't have one politician that has the political courage to do the right thing."
Eventually, Sanchotena sees the controversy being decided in court, but stressed that only one decision will save the fish -- a decision to breach the dams. "We've got a path that can lead us to recovery and a path that can lead us to extinction," he said.
And the clock is ticking. According to Sanchotena, three-year-old children may see Idaho salmon extinct by the time they turn 18. And that, he says, would be a huge (and completely avoidable) tragedy.
"I can't, for the life of me, imagine Idaho without salmon," he said.
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