We All Can Learn from
Don Chapman spent years teaching salmon science to students at the University of Idaho.
His most important lesson may be in the need -- and the inherent value -- of re-examining beliefs. Chapman, who for years argued against removing portions of four dams on the lower Snake River, now says breaching is necessary to save the remarkable fish he calls a "miracle."
It's easy to get caught up in the surprising nature of Chapman's conversion. Chapman is a renowned regional expert on salmon, so when he outlined his change of position in August, in an interview with The Statesman's Rocky Barker, the news rippled through the region. Four months later, it's still startling to hear a longtime consultant for the electric industry argue to remove dams that produce about 5 percent of the Northwest's federal power.
However, it's more important for the region to contemplate Chapman's logical case for breaching. His premise is simple. The region is changing. So must our approach to saving salmon and producing power.
The argument hinges on another hot-button issue: global warming. Chapman says the trend is indisputable -- with adverse effects on salmon in the Pacific Northwest, Western Canada and Scotland. Warmer river temperatures cause salmon fry to leave their redds earlier -- but they find food scarce, at a time when they must grow or die. Several salmon diseases thrive in warmer water. A warmer Pacific Ocean is a "less productive" environment for salmon that spend most of their lives at sea, Chapman says.
All these factors result in fewer wild salmon returning to Idaho spawning grounds. As a result, Chapman says, the region cannot afford to keep the lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington, when dam breaching could cut in half the mortality rate for young salmon heading to the ocean.
Chapman points out, correctly, that the region must replace the power the dams produce. The Northwest's population is projected to double in 50 years, Idaho's in 38. Given global warming, fossil fuel is the worst possible substitute, Chapman says, and wind won't meet the need. The best solution also is controversial -- building nuclear power plants and devising a solution to waste disposal.
Is Chapman's thinking radical and off the grid? Not necessarily. Compare his positions with Larry Craig's. Idaho's senior senator has changed his thinking on climate change, and now says the science supports global warming. Craig also says the Northwest will need new power sources -- such as nuclear plants. The two part on dam breaching. Craig, like the rest of the region's elected leaders, argues to keep the dams.
The beauty of Chapman's argument -- aside from the fact that we think he's right about breaching -- is that it should force thinking people to revisit entrenched opinions.
And the sooner, the better. Idaho's salmon have been on the federal government's endangered species list for more than a decade and continue to struggle. Speaking to the Idaho Environmental Forum on Wednesday, Chapman was reluctant to predict the salmon's future, but suggested the fish might be able to withstand only 30 to 40 more years of the status quo. The time to re-examine breaching is now, he says, before the Northwest's population doubles.
Rethinking positions is tough intellectual duty. The Northwest won't embark on this soul-searching unless and until we place a non-negotiable premium on saving wild salmon and steelhead. "I'm not prepared ethically to say goodbye to all those stocks," Chapman said Wednesday.
Our salmon will survive only if more players in the debate think more like Chapman -- receptive to new ideas, yet stubborn about saving the fish.
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