Congressional Delegation Watches Hearings,
by N.S. Nokkentved
TWIN FALLS -- People in southern Idaho are passionate about salmon -- that was evident from recent hearings across the state.
What their comments mean and how they will affect the issue is less clear.
Most people who spoke out at three public hearings in southern Idaho support breaching federal dams in the lower Snake River to ease the plight of endangered Idaho salmon and steelhead.
"People care about salmon," said Luci Willits, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson.
In a series of meetings across the Northwest, people commented on federal agencies' options for restoring dwindling Northwest salmon and steelhead runs.
But the decision to breach four federal dams in the lower Snake River would rest with Congress. And though they didn't attend, members of Idaho's Republican congressional delegation were listening.
Simpson takes what people said at the hearings seriously, Willits said. What he heard was enlightening, she said. But a decision to breach dams is not an easy one.
The turnout reflects that supporters of breaching are well-organized, but whether that's an accurate poll of public opinion is less certain, Willits said.
According to an unofficial tally of the speakers in Boise, about 75 percent favored solutions that include breaching. In Idaho Falls the number was about 80 percent, and in Twin Falls it was about 86 percent.
But Scott Bosse of Idaho Rivers United, one of the leading organizers of the move to breach the dams, said the turnout reflects that people care more passionately about salmon than they do about dams.
More people who support dam breaching were more willing to take an evening to come out and voice their opinion than people who oppose breaching, Bosse said.
The hearing in Twin Falls Wednesday went past midnight -- more than 550 people attended and about 73 people spoke.
Regardless, the hearings have given people a chance to talk about the issue, and that's good, Willits said. But ultimately it will be a political decision.
Simpson wants every reasonable solution pursued before dams are breached, Willits said. But the political power to make the decision rests with Eastern members of Congress.
Simpson supports Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush, because Bush has said he would oppose breaching the dams, Willits said.
Sen. Mike Crapo said he was pleased that the federal agencies were conducting the hearings, but he still is troubled by a process that is not truly collaborative.
The public was allowed to comment on options developed behind closed doors by federal agencies, but people were not involved in developing those options. And people won't participate in formulating the final decision, he said.
It was good that people were allowed to voice their opinion on what the agencies are proposing, but that "certainly doesn't mean the public is involved in the decision-making process," Crapo said.
Sen. Larry Craig will continue to evaluate input from those who have testified, along with everything that's on the table, spokesman Mike Tracy said.
The final hearing of 15 across the Northwest was held Thursday in Alaska.
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