Sen. Smith says Dam Removal Issue 'Over'
Jim Tankersley, The Oregonian - July 9, 1999
U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith on Thursday called removing dams to save salmon a dead issue -- but federal officials quickly disagreed.
Smith, a Republican who has long fought against a proposal to breach four dams on the lower Snake River to aid the region's ailing salmon and steelhead trout, told editors of The Oregonian that the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and other federal agencies are backing away from the idea.
"I've noticed a change in the people at NMFS, the corps, Bonneville -- they're all talking other things now," he said. "The issue of dam removal is essentially over, except for the true believers."
But federal officials working to save Northwest salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act said Thursday they were still considering the breaching option.
"The administration is in the midst of a comprehensive review to determine the . . . the best possible way to restore salmon in the Columbia Basin," said Elliot Diringer, a spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "This issue is not likely to be settled once and for all in just a few months."
The Corps of Engineers is forging ahead with an environmental impact study, due in October, on the effects of a possible dam breach, said corps fishery biologist Witt Anderson.
Donna Darm, assistant regional administrator for protected resources for the fisheries service in Seattle, said she hasn't seen a change in her agency's approach to salmon restoration. "Dam removal is still an option that is under active consideration," she said.
Smith, who toured Portland with Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush on Wednesday and listened as Bush came out against dam removal, said presidential politics already is affecting the debate.
Smith said Vice President Al Gore, as he begins the race, is pushing to eliminate dam removal as a fish-recovery option.
If the agencies recommend breaching, Smith said, Gore would be forced to embrace the plan and alienate farmers and industrial users of the river system. If he opposes breaching, Gore would anger his large environmentalist support base. The vice president has not taken a stance.
"I'm told he's trying to run away from it now," Smith said. "I think they know it's a loser issue."
If the White House is pushing agencies away from breaching, the word doesn't seem to be getting through.
"We certainly haven't been given that message," Anderson said. "There's been no meddling in the analytical work we're doing from on high in D.C."
Supporters and opponents of dam removal agreed Thursday that Smith could be on target, but their lobbying efforts will go on.
"I think it's a bit premature, but I guess the pessimist in me would say Smith may be right," said Jim Myron, conservation director for Oregon Trout, which supports dam removal. "The politics are going to drive this decision more than biology. The closer you get to an election year, the harder it's going to be."
The battle on dams is far from over, said Columbia River Alliance Executive Director Bruce Lovelin, a breaching opponent. "I think he's right, but I don't think we're ready to concede that at this point."
Smith also said Thursday he is committed to saving salmon and drafting a bill that would require hydroelectric dams to switch to more fish-friendly turbines as a condition for relicensing.
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