Gore Takes to the Water
by Matea Gold, Times staff writer
RICHLAND, Wash. -- Vice President Al Gore hopscotched across the state of Washington on Friday, trying to emphasize his environmental credentials even as he sidestepped a regional controversy about whether to breach the Snake River dams to help restore the salmon stock.
Gore promised that, as president, he would work to find a compromise between environmentalists who want to make it easier for the region's salmon to swim upstream and farmers who want to keep the dams for local irrigation. Business interests also oppose breaching the dams, which supply electricity to the eastern part of the state. The controversy has pitted two of the vice president's constituencies against each other: environmentalists and labor.
But despite continued pressure to take a position, Gore once again refused Friday, saying instead that as president he would bring together all the stakeholders to find a solution.
"I am deeply committed to saving and restoring the salmon of this region," Gore said during a morning visit to this small river town. "Extinction is not an option and neither is massive economic dislocation.
"If you stand with me in this election, I promise you will have a president who is committed heart and soul to finding the right solution."
Gore was immediately accused of ducking the issue by the campaign of his Republican rival for the presidency, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"Al Gore continues to demonstrate weak leadership on an important issue," Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said in a statement. "The citizens of the Pacific Northwest deserve to know where the vice president stands on an issue as important as breaching the dams."
Bush opposes breaching the dams, saying technology exists that could help the fish reach their spawning grounds.
Gore also tried to bolster support in this state by announcing that President Clinton on Friday designated Hanford Reach, a 51-mile-long stretch of the Columbia River, a national monument.
After an hourlong boat tour of the river, the last free-flowing part of the Columbia, Gore announced its national monument status before about 100 local supporters gathered on the banks.
There is "no greater treasure than this pristine stretch of the Columbia," said Gore, as the river's blue water sparkled behind him. "We have to preserve and protect it, for all eternity. Starting here, starting now, we will preserve it and protect it."
The 200,000-acre, horseshoe-shaped area near the Oregon border is where 80% of the Chinook salmon in the Columbia basin spawn and is also the winter nesting ground of bald eagles.
Local environmentalists fought for years to have the public land designated a monument to protect it from being turned over to the counties and developed as farmland. Republicans in Congress and some local officials fiercely opposed Clinton's move, saying the residents should have the freedom to decide what to do with the area.
Much of the reach looks the same as it did when Lewis and Clark explored the region 200 years ago, Gore noted, because the land, which once hosted a plutonium production plant, is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and has been left undeveloped.
Gore seemed moved by his tour, pointing enthusiastically to rolling dun-colored hills and leaning against the windshield of the motorboat as it raced downstream. He said Washington provides a unique opportunity to appreciate nature.
"The environment, the salmon, the mountains--they live inside us and inspire us," he said.
Gore is running neck-and-neck with Bush in recent polls in this traditionally Democratic stronghold. He is receiving a boost in the state from ads, paid for by the Democratic National Committee, touting him as a defender of senior citizens.
Gore flew to Seattle on Friday afternoon, where he addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors, promising a greater partnership between cities and the federal government.
Gore also promoted next week's "progress and prosperity" tour, when he will talk about what can be accomplished with the nation's economic wealth. He warned that just because the country was experiencing surpluses now doesn't mean tough decisions won't be made in the future.
"You don't want to kill that golden goose," he said.
"Amen!" yelled a member of the audience.
"Thank you," Gore said. "I've been needing an amen corner."
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