Hearing Draws Area Sentiment
by Paul Shukovsky
Farmers and fishermen professed respect for each other yesterday even as they fought over the fate of four Lower Snake River dams in a packed public hearing on how to save endangered salmon runs.
For the farmers, the water behind the dams irrigates their crops. And the tamed river provides a cheap way to barge their harvest to market.
For the fishermen, the dams turn the river into "killing fields" that destroy juvenile salmon and decimate their livelihood.
Divisions over whether to breach the dams to allow the salmon unobstructed passage cut across the spectrum of Northwest life. Among the more than 225 people who gathered at the Seattle Center were representatives of Indian tribes, environmental groups, Snake River utilities and private citizens.
Those who spoke in favor of breaching the dams to save the salmon outnumbered those who want to keep the dams but find other ways to rescue the fish. Alfalfa farmer Dave Miller of Royal City, who depends on water from the Grand Coulee Dam to irrigate his crops, said that if the hearing had been held in Central Washington instead of Seattle, the numbers would be reversed.
"If we had enough money in the farming community . . . we would pay for the salmon recovery," Miller told a panel of representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Bonneville Power Administration. He urged the panel not to tamper with the river, which he called a "productive agricultural and transportation system."
Fellow food producer Peter Knutson of the Puget Sound Gillnetters Association said: "We sympathize with small farmers on the east side of the Cascade Range. Making a living from the dirt or from the sea is tough. We don't want to see family farmers thrown out of work by dam destruction. But farmers have to understand that fishers have been thrown out of work by dam construction.
"We don't want more apologies, hatcheries, Atlantic salmon, paper fish or Army Corps of Engineers Rube Goldberg barges. We're sick of hypocrites blaming the Indians and scapegoating the harvesters. The truth is, we are driving the fish to extinction. Let the Snake River flow."
Knutson's reference to barges was a swipe at efforts to save salmon by literally shipping them around the dams. Built about 30 years ago, the four Snake dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite and Little Goose -- produce 5 percent of the region's electricity and make it possible for barges to run between the Tri-Cities and Lewiston, Idaho, 300 miles inland.
There was a surprise appearance from two men in buckskins and raccoon caps portraying themselves as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Mark Lawler, a Sierra Club activist, said in his role as Lewis: "I return here after 195 years with weary heart and discouraged soul. The promises we made to the first people who lived here . . . are broken. The generations who followed us did not honor you, your rivers, or the salmon."
Captain Lewis noted that the gift of salmon from Nez Perce Indians saved the party from starvation.
At yesterday's hearing, members of the Nez Perce spoke of a starvation of the spirit if they were to lose the salmon that helps define them.
"The salmon are a part of ourselves, our ancestry, our history, our pride," said tribal member Josephine Wright. The dams, she said, are equivalent to a death sentence.
But the loss of the dams, said members of the Central Washington farming communities, is equivalent to a death sentence for their way of life.
Boots Fischer, representing 40,000 members of the Washington State Grange, said "it would be devastating to these members" if the dams are breached and irrigation is reduced.
Tom Flint, whose Save Our Dams Coalition has presented an 85,000-signature petition, said that after hearing so much about the salmon as a Northwest icon, he wanted to remind the panel about the "icon of the family farm."
"You should not cut off the farm that feeds you," he said.
Bill Arthur, Northwest Regional Director of the Sierra Club, said "delay is deadly for the salmon." He dubbed his solution of breaching the four dams as a kind of "quadruple bypass" to save the fish that so many people present yesterday consider to be the heart of the Northwest.
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