As I See It:
by Stephen Ambrose, Special to The Star
President Clinton has a rare opportunity to honor the legacy of Lewis and Clark in his remaining days in office.
Many of the species first recorded by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are struggling to survive. We have so altered the Missouri, Snake and Columbia rivers that Lewis and Clark would hardly recognize these arteries of the American West.
When Lewis and Clark crossed the continent nearly two centuries ago, they saw rivers and flood plains teeming with life. Immense herds of buffalo, elk and antelope fed in one "common and boundless pasture." Clark wrote that deer in the Missouri's flood plain were as plentiful as "hogs about a farm." Millions of salmon surged up the Columbia and Snake each year to spawn and sustained the Voyage of Discovery during their long winter along the Columbia's estuary.
Today, many of the species encountered by Lewis and Clark are on the verge of extinction, and some are already gone.
Since Lewis and Clark returned, we have dramatically changed these rivers in the name of progress. We eliminated virtually all of the lower Missouri's islands, sandbars and sloughs -- the places river wildlife need to survive -- to attract barges that never came. We built dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers that delay the migration of young salmon to the sea and pose lethal obstacles to adult salmon returning to spawn. Today, only a few thousand wild Snake River salmon remain.
Unless President Clinton acts now and acts decisively, many of the species encountered by Lewis and Clark will be lost forever.
First, President Clinton should direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reform Missouri River dam operations to include higher spring dam releases and lower summer dam releases. Current dam operations are contributing to the extinction of three federally protected species -- including a bird first described by Lewis -- but the Army Corps will propose a new dam-management plan this fall.
Second, President Clinton should direct the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Army Corps to be prepared to remove four dams from the lower Snake River in 2005 if other salmon recovery measures fail to resurrect endangered salmon runs.
And President Clinton should direct federal salmon managers to implement meaningful interim salmon-recovery measures, including better management of federal dams in southern Idaho. In the case of Snake River salmon, significant delay will almost certainly result in extinction.
After traveling among unparalleled bounty, Lewis and Clark would be shocked to learn that many of the species that sustained their journey are extinct or nearing extinction. The bicentennial of their voyage in 2004 creates a rare opportunity to repair the arteries of the West and honor their legacy as pioneering naturalists.
If President Clinton acts now to save the species first recorded by Lewis and Clark, Americans will recall his leadership for generations. By contrast, the steady decline and extinction of these species would serve as a constant reminder of his failure to act, obscuring the environmental achievements of his administration.
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