Less visible environmental crusades against Snake River dams still alive

DETOUR: Activists shift focus to lobbying for votes in nation's capital

The Associated Press - News Tribune

KENNEWICK, WA- 4/10/02 - Gone are the public hearings where environmentalists wearing salmon costumes called on Congress to breach dams.

Gone, too, are the expensive advertising campaigns and public criticism of federal agencies for their handling of the Northwest's salmon stocks.

But while an energy shortage and a new administration have pushed salmon from the headlines, environmental campaigns against Snake River dams are still active.

A substantial part of the effort has shifted to Washington, D.C., where groups such as Save Our Wild Salmon are patiently gathering votes in Congress and counting the ways that federal salmon recovery plans are being shortchanged.

"We are very deliberately building national support around this issue," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon. The coalition of sports fishing and conservation groups was among the most vocal advocates of dam breaching in the late 1990s.

"This work is a little less visible because it's not about mobilizing large numbers of people," he said.

The effort also appears to have become more defensive after a mounting string of administrative rulings and court victories for water-use advocates.

The campaign is focusing on national energy policy and the role of hydropower, large Columbia River salmon returns and decisions by the National Marine Fisheries Service to review the need for its Endangered Species Act listings.

Breaching the four lower Snake dams to create a free-flowing river remains low profile, for now.

American Rivers, for instance, has shifted focus from the Snake, which in 2000 was named the nation's "most endangered" river.

The Snake doesn't make this year's recently released list of endangered rivers.

"The next big point of reckoning is coming in 2003, and that is when we are going to see whether or not the nonbreach plan is being implemented," said Rob Masonis, a lawyer for American Rivers in Seattle.

"What we are trying to do collectively in the environmental community is to make sure that the federal government is accountable for what it proposed."

At the Sierra Club, leaders are blending dam breaching efforts with a long-running campaign to protect lands explored by Lewis and Clark.

Along with protection of grizzly habitat and roadless areas, Snake dam removal is on the organization's project list.

Within the next month, the Sierra Club is promising two major reports on river issues. It's also pitching the Salmon Planning Act introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Seattle) as a backup plan in case current recovery efforts fail.

Opponents immediately labeled it a dam-breaching bill.

The big push, however, will be next year, when the federal government will have to show how well its salmon recovery programs are working.

"We will by then have documented fairly thoroughly a failure to implement" salmon protections, Ford said. "We will certainly do something to make that a very visible event."

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