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Commentaries and editorials

Salmon and the Nondecision Decision

by Paul vanDevelder
San Francisco Examiner, July 28, 2000

Whether to breach the Snake River dams or not can wait 5 years, but can the fish?

THE CLINTON administration's timely decision not to support breaching the four federal dams on the Snake River (to rescue failing salmon stocks) comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the politics of denial. President Clinton has never met a political dilemma he couldn't finesse. Nevertheless, his latest nondecision on the dams must have given Vice President Al Gore cause to take a deep breath. This long awaited announcement, officially unveiled yesterday in Portland, Ore., by the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, George Frampton, and the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Will Stelle, gives Gore and Clinton the opportunity to finesse a political firestorm by opting for the well-worn moral low road, a road marked by neck- deep ruts cut by an administration that never ducked a political expense so long as someone else was picking up the tab.

In this case, the expedience is transparent: Back away from breaching the dams, take the pressure off Gore in an election year, and let the tribes run the gantlet of political opinion.

Don Sampson, the executive director of the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, explained in a parallel press conference that the administration's nondecision has given the tribes no choice but to sue the federal government both for noncompliance with the Endangered Species Act, and for failing to safeguard the provisions in their 1855 treaties. A Clinton administration spokesman never made mention of the fact that a recent salmon treaty between the tribes and the American and Canadian governments guarantees the Northwest tribes a payment of $10 billion, if salmon were allowed to go extinct.

What the administration has failed to realize on the Snake and the Columbia is that political solutions to this scientific crisis will prove to be irrelevant. Clinton's own spokesman, Frampton, told the press that all the science compiled thus far concludes that the dams are the single-most significant contributor to the looming extinction of salmon.

Last year, Bruce Babbitt made a great show of breaching the Edwards Dam in Maine, a dam that had blocked anadromous fish runs on the Kennebec River for 162 years. In a flicker of time, a river that was on its biological death bed is now seeing fish species in quantities and varieties no one alive has ever seen in that river.

But findings from the Kennebec were no where to be found in the testimony presented to Congress by the Clinton administration July 19. No one dared.

Time and again, simple economics have argued forcefully in favor of breaching the dams. But economics pale when measured against the weight of another factor; the power of the treaty. American presidents, from Jefferson through Clinton, have been more than willing to leverage their political agendas on the backs of tribes, not to mention the beasts, fishes and fowl.

Tribal chairmen have vowed to fight back, both for the fish and for future generations of all Americans, regardless of their color or heritage.

In their treaties with the federal government, documents that are recognized by Article VI of the Constitution as ``the supreme law of the land,'' the tribes hold the trump cards. With that in mind, Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. would ask that most unsettling of all rhetorical questions: ``Are not great nations, as great men, good to their word?''

That question was answered in the state of Washington three weeks ago when delegates to the state Republican convention passed a resolution calling for an end to all tribal governments. Supporters, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Harold Hochstatter, called for the federal government to ``send in the U.S. Army and the Air Force and the Marines and the National Guard to battle back,'' if the tribes resist.

The cultural hard-wiring of Manifest Destiny continues to give us a metaphorical blank check of approval from our storied ancestors, permission to dispatch anything and anyone that gets in the way of what we happen to want. But that zeal has consequences. As things now stand, only the tribes and their treaties stand between salmon and extinction.

Sadly, the president is only too willing to let the tribes, and the beasts and the fishes, pay the ultimate price for the politics of denial.

For the rest of us citizens, it is our good fortune that we are not a nation of political storms, but a nation of bedrock laws. This is a foundational principle on which the American house of democracy was erected, one that today seems to be better understood by the tribes than by our elected leaders.

And that, I submit, is irony in its fullest measure.

Paul vanDevelder, is a free-lance journalist in Corvallis, Ore.
Salmon and the Nondecision Decision
San Francisco Chronicle, July 28, 2000

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