Removing Snake River Dams is Nowby John Hughes / Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The Snake River has quietly meandered through the hills and farms of southeastern Washington state for generations, lacking the fame of the Mississippi, the Rio Grande or the Pacific Northwest's most famous river, the Columbia.
But that is changing.
"Saving" the Snake has become a battle cry in Washington, D.C., strategy sessions, full-page national newspaper ads and in grass-roots environmental offices from coast to coast.
Environmentalists want to make the partial removal of four Snake River dams to help salmon as common of a cause nationwide as was saving the bald eagle.
With Pacific Northwest leaders seemingly content to delay a decision on dam removal, environmental activists are taking their cause to a much higher level - namely, Vice President Al Gore.
"Don't let time run out for the salmon," said a recent full-page advertisement in The New York Times. "Vice President Al Gore will help decide their fate. Tell him you care about salmon and want the lower Snake River dams removed."
Idaho conservationists are paying $130,000 for four full-page ads that will run in the Times by the end of next month and are sponsored by nine groups.
One of the ads compares salmon to the buffalo, and another beckons readers to "give a dam" and save salmon - but all four ads focus on Gore.
"We think now's the time," said Tim Stearns, conservation director of Seattle-based Save Our Wild Salmon, one of the groups behind the ad campaign. "We're obviously trying to convince him (Gore) to be bold. ... This campaign represents very big stuff for us."
The ads are not the only step environmentalists are taking.
American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.,-based environmental group, has made the Snake one of its top national efforts this year. The group made the Snake its most endangered river for 1999, a move that gave the river national media attention.
American Rivers is also holding regular media briefings in the nation's capital to assert their views on dam removal.
"I don't think it is only a regional issue, the nation is becoming more engaged," said Justin Hayes, associate director of public policy for the group.
The National Wildlife Federation is sending mailings to tens of thousands of its activists nationwide on the Snake dams and is preparing a video for coast-to-coast distribution.
Saving Snake salmon is one of those rare issues - like the NWF's past effort to save wolves - that group members feel is a critical national priority.
"It's more unusual for us to take an issue like this that is playing out largely in the region and try to take it to our broader membership," said Sara Barth, legislative representative for the group in Washington, D.C. "We don't do this with every issue."
Federal officials are studying the possibility of removing the earthen portions of Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams and allowing water to freely flow past the concrete structures as a way to help recover dwindling salmon populations.
Officials could make a recommendation as early as next year.
But environmentalists recently have grown more discouraged with the study effort, saying regional officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service seem to be moving away from what the environmentalists contend is sound science - and away from the idea of recommending a breach of the dams.
Northwest political leaders who want to protect the dams are pleased with the direction of recent studies.
They have been using the efforts of national environmental groups to push their argument that outsiders are trying to tell northwesterners how to live.
On the day the first New York Times ad ran, Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., whose district includes the dams, took to the House floor to criticize the environmentalists for spending thousands of dollars for dam removal.
"We have to look at sensible science, not junk science that I think is being proposed by these groups of extremists," Nethercutt said.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., another prominent dam defender, said the newspaper ad campaign and other national efforts are increasing the prominence of the Snake River issue.
But the steps are coming at a time when overwhelming political opinion and scientific research in the Pacific Northwest is working against environmentalists, he said.
"As these national environmental organizations sense that they're losing popular support for what they're doing in the Northwest, they're attempting to substitute for it popular opinion in the District of Columbia and New York City," Gorton said.
But the environmentalists say it is people like Gorton and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who have been pursuing a national strategy.
Gorton proposed an unsuccessful bill amendment last year that would have protected Northwest dams from removal in return for funding the already-approved removal of the Elwha Dam in Washington state.
Hastings has proposed a non-binding congressional resolution that opposes dam removal.
It is unclear what effect if any the environmentalists' newspaper ads are having on Gore.
Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, did not return a telephone call Monday or a page on Wednesday.
Environmentalists say they are sending a message that Gore should not take them for granted in next year's election.
Stearns said he supports Gore for now, but former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley - who also is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination - is "certainly an alternative."
Most observers expect Gore to take no immediate public position on removing the Snake dams.
But Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents aluminum companies and other industrial users of the Columbia and Snake rivers, said the national effort of environmentalists has at least a chance of succeeding.
The newspaper ads "ought to be a wake up call for the people I represent ... in terms of the outside forces which are at play right now," Lovelin said.
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