Saving Salmon the Right Wayby Editors
The Oregonian, July 20, 2000
White House plan to place dam breaching on the back burner
while pursuing other strategies makes sense
You can expect the spin doctors for dam-breaching advocacy groups to be out in full force with their wild tales of salmon extinction now that the White House has decided against breaching the four lower Snake River dams anytime soon.
The undoctored truth of the matter, though, is that putting dam-breaching on hold is a scientifically sound decision that should help, not hurt, imperiled salmon. And it's also welcome news for Northwest ratepayers and taxpayers.
This delay for at least five years -- and perhaps longer -- of any decision to breach the four dams will give the region's policymakers time to craft a multi-faceted recovery program that can eventually remove four Snake River salmon and steelhead stocks from the Endangered Species list.
Whether the non-breach options succeed depends primarily on what the National Marine Fisheries Service proposes next week as an alternative plan to aid the endangered Snake River fish.
That proposal, called a biological opinion for the Snake, will emphasize habitat restoration projects, hatchery practices and harvest limits. Progress in helping the fish and avoiding a $1 billion-plus breaching decision later on depends on whether the region has the will to make the necessary sacrifices to improve salmon habitat on both public and private lands, overhaul failed hatchery practices of the past, and reduce harvest levels to give the depleted stocks a jump-start toward recovery.
The decision to delay the breaching decision was a courageous one for the Clinton administration and Vice President Al Gore, whose campaign for president no doubt felt pressure from the scores of environmental groups, sport and commercial fishing organizations and Indian tribes who combined efforts to conduct a nationwide campaign aimed at breaching the dams now.
That the White House resisted this pressure, and ignored "breach the dams" editorials from a half dozen large metropolitan newspapers, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer, demonstrates that good science -- that is, newer science -- can still drive public policy, even in an election year.
Science clearly is on the side of the broader-based strategy -- one that says dam breaching should be considered only after other efforts fail.
Even though dam-breaching advocates continue to preach that tearing down the dams must be part of any plan to save the salmon, recent scientific monitoring shows that removing the Snake River dams would be only marginally beneficial to three of the four endangered stocks.
And the engineering process that breaching requires could do some harm to the Snake River fall chinook, a species generally regarded as dam breaching's chief beneficiary.
The Oregonian has stated for some time now that dam breaching is merely one pill in a fish doctor's medicine bag. With its stiff price tag, the breaching strategy carries the liability of being one of those choices in which the cure could be worse than the disease.
We say that because breaching the Snake River dams, without first securing funds for other lower-profile salmon-recovery programs that may help the salmon more, could be a momentum killer for future salmon funding.
By putting the dam-breaching decision on the back burner -- and it ought to remain there as an option of last resort -- the Northwest has a much better chance of getting federal financial help for the enormous challenge of rescuing endangered salmon throughout the Columbia River Basin, the Oregon Coast and elsewhere -- not just in this one stretch of the Snake River.
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