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Kempthorne Leaves a Lesson
for Obama on the West

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, November 17, 2008

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's success in forging an agreement on the Klamath River last week tells a larger story about how both Republican and Democratic administrations make policy in western resource issues and about what ultimately works.

Kempthorne joined Oregon Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Pacificorp executives, tribal leaders, environmentalists and irrigators in an agreement that will lead to the removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in 2020. It was a remarkable reversal of policy for the Bush administration, which had previously opposed dam removals in the Pacific Northwest.

A judge's ruling in 2001 had forced farmers to drain irrigation water downriver to aid salmon. Farmers formed a "Freedom Cavalry" to unlock the headgates and close off the water, an event that captured national attention.

The Bush administration immediately sided with the farmers and vowed not to leave them high and dry, especially with the 2002 midterm elections coming up. It brought in its top gun, Vice President Dick Cheney, to force Interior officials to toe the line.

More than 10,000 salmon died, exactly what the administration's own scientists predicted. But the administration held fast, this time sending Karl Rove to a meeting of Interior managers to show them the PowerPoint presentations he regularly showed top donors, the Washington Post reported, so they would know the administration was standing firm on the banks of the Klamath.

Then two things changed. First, Pacificorp was going through federal relicensing on its four dams and was unable to demonstrate it could keep the dams and protect the salmon. In the press conference Thursday, Kulongoski revealed the other factor.

"I'll tell you what changed: Dirk became the secretary of Interior," Kulongoski said.

Kempthorne, who as governor of Idaho had been deep in a similar salmon-dam-water fight over the Snake and Columbia, got permission - indeed orders -from Bush to find a solution to the Klamath mess. He and his team, including attorney Michael Bogert, who led Kempthorne's negotiations on the Nez Perce Water Rights Agreement, could see where a deal lay.

They went to Pacificorp, which was in a no-win situation. If the company could keep the dams, it would have to spend millions to aid the fish and still face lawsuits. If it agreed to take the dams out, its rates would rise and it would have to pay removal costs.

Kempthorne asked them to make the business decision and told them he would help with the costs. The final deal allowed them to keep using the dams while scientists figured out the best way to take them out and the federal government agreed to partially fund the removal costs with California loaning the rest.

Kempthorne's deal-making is similar to the approach Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt used when he sought local support for new monuments across the West, including expansion of south-central Idaho's Craters of the Moon in 2000. Those decisions stuck.

But the Clinton Roadless Rule, opposed across the West by governors, loggers, miners and motorized recreation groups, have been on a legal see-saw since. The Bush administration followed a similar path, seeking to weaken environmental laws through rule changes that the Obama transition team already is looking at reversing.

I suspect Kempthorne's Klamath agreement will survive and may even become a model for resolving watershed issues across the region and even the nation. Though bringing all sides together will be harder to do on the Columbia. The four lower Snake dams produce a lot more power than the Klamath dams.

And unlike Pacificorp, which is a business that makes business decisions, the Bonneville Power Administration, which controls the electricity from the federal dams on the Columbia, is as much a political entity as it is a power supplier. A lot more people must be involved in a decision to give up dams than at a corporation.

As the Obama administration looks at its strategy for resource issues in the West, it has two choices.

It can stir up the next sagebrush rebellion or "Freedom Cavalry" by forcing unpopular decisions on rural westerners. Or it can skip the part where politics drives early decisions and jump right into collaboration mode.

Rocky Barker
Kempthorne Leaves a Lesson for Obama on the West
Idaho Statesman, November 17, 2008

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