Saving Salmon, or Seattle?

The Northwest is obsessed with the fate of salmon -- except that, as is often true, the battle is really over how people want to live

IN mid-July, USA Today broke the biggest political news of the year for the Pacific Northwest: the Clinton Administration was about to reveal its plan to save the endangered wild salmon of the region, and the plan would not include partly removing, or breaching, four dams on the lower Snake River, in the southeastern corner of Washington State. For the past several years these dams have been the object of mounting controversy among environmentalists, industrial groups, farmers, and politicians. The Administration said that for at least the next five years a variety of other recovery measures would be given a try.
The Administration made the announcement because federal court rulings required it to take a stand on the dams, but in so doing it also solved a political problem for Al Gore. The environmental groups that were Gore's natural allies had been pushing him hard for a commitment to breach the dams -- that is, to leave the concrete portions in place but remove the adjacent earthworks to create a channel. But such a pledge would have hurt Gore with voters in the arid eastern parts of Washington and Oregon, where the dams provide irrigation and other benefits, and would invite Republican attacks on him as an environmental extremist. At first Gore kept his distance from the proposed five-year delay, but soon he embraced it as "a solid foundation for restoring the salmon while strengthening the economy of the Pacific Northwest."

The benefits to Gore were so obvious that the Republicans' main complaint was how much the Clinton plan helped him. "Make no mistake -- it's a delay to give Vice President Al Gore cover until after the election," Senator Slade Gorton, of Washington, a Republican and a strong supporter of the dams, said as soon as the moratorium was announced. Republicans could complain about little else: at face value the plan made sense. The Administration was saying that it would try less drastic steps to help salmon before resorting to the most costly, least readily reversed measures.

The plan seemed anything but sensible to the coalition of groups that had been demanding immediate breaching of the dams: "We are shocked and disappointed by the lack of vision," Mark Van Putten, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, said when news of the impending decision was leaked. Representatives of Friends of the Earth, American Rivers, Defenders of Wildlife, and other conservation groups added their disapproval of the plan when it was officially confirmed, a week later. Chris Zimmer, of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of environmental and fishing groups, said his organization was "deeply disappointed" by the delay. Rob Masonis, of American Rivers, told me, "Our paramount concern is the displacement of dam removal as the principal recovery tool." In late August the Seattle City Council endorsed getting rid of the dams. On the other side, representatives of the Bonneville Power Administration -- which distributes and sells electricity from the four disputed dams -- and of the big power-consuming industries in the region said they were concerned that the standards for "sufficient" salmon recovery would be subjective enough to make whatever happens in the next five years seem a "failure" and therefore would dictate dam breaching as the next step. James Buchal, a lawyer in Portland, Oregon, and the author of a skeptical point-by-point response to anti-dam arguments, called (1998), also predicted that the dams would face very high "flow requirements" -- obligations to draw down their reservoirs by releasing water over the spillways, in an attempt to simulate fast-flowing streams. These, he said, would reduce their power-generating potential so significantly that "they will make dam removal the cheap way out."

In some political interactions -- coming up with a tax bill, for example -- a balance of complaints may indicate that something like the right result has been reached. But in other disputes -- say, land claims in the Middle East -- grievance from all sides means that the dispute is likely to persist. The salmon controversy, I fear, will be like the Middle East.

In Washington and Oregon this year's salmon runs have been the strongest in many years. The perverse reality is that the main threat to the anti-dam movement is the possibility that salmon runs will continue to recover over the next five years. The anti-dam forces say this can't happen, because the dams are the real problem, and if the salmon stock does somehow recover, it will be an anomaly, like one cold summer in the midst of a global warming trend -- or, more to the point, like this year's huge returns of salmon up and down the Northwest coast. Nonetheless, the anti-dam movement now has a short-term stake in whatever is bad for the fish. Last year Washington voters considered a ballot initiative that would have banned gill-netting for salmon -- a destructive and undiscriminating means of fishing. In my naiveté as a newcomer to the region (I had lived there less than a year at the time), I assumed that if salmon were endangered, catching fewer of them would be helpful, so I voted for the initiative. But many environmental groups stood shoulder to shoulder with commercial fishermen in criticizing the initiative, arguing that it would divert attention and political pressure from the "real problem" -- the dams. The initiative lost. Such odd alliances and "intensify the contradictions" thinking have only become more likely because of the Administration's new plan.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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