Relicensing Box Canyon Dam has people in uproar - Contentious issue pits people against fish once again

Dan Hansen - Staff writer
The Spokesman Review

NEWPORT, Wash. _March 28, 2002 -  The meeting was an open house, and people were invited to come and go at will. There was no reason to show up early.

But folks did come early to Newport Middle School, for their chance to comment about the most contentious issue to hit northeastern Washington since Bill Clinton suggested a ban on new forest roads.

"They're going to make people in this county make a choice between eating and heating their homes," Newport retiree Carey Averyt said Wednesday night.

This time, the issue was not forests, but Box Canyon Dam, about 50 miles up the road. For 50 years, it's given customers of the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District about the lowest-priced electricity possible.

Now, the dam must be relicensed. As part of that process, state and federal agencies say the PUD must make costly concessions.

The dam has contributed to the decline of trout in the Pend Oreille River and to the proliferation of the aquatic weed milfoil, biologists say. It has caused erosion and washed out once-popular beaches, photos show. It flooded areas where generations of families used to fish, hunt and gather food, members of the Kalispel Tribe say.

To help compensate for those losses, the agencies have a list of conditions that will cause power bills to increase.

Exactly how much rates would go up is debated. Enough to run big employers out of the county, the PUD has said at past meetings and in mailings to its customers.

The PUD contends the dam has not caused major environmental and cultural losses. And a good many county residents agree.

"Looks to me like they've done the fish a big favor," one man said Wednesday night, looking at "before" pictures of a skinny river and "after" shots of it plump and sluggish.

About 150 people came to the open house hosted by the U.S. Forest Service. Foresters invited colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the tribe to staff tables where residents could get answers to questions about the project.

There were more tables, where people could write their comments about the fish ladder, the bike path, the additional campground, the weed-killing drawdowns and other changes the PUD would have to fund.

And there was a quiet room with a tape recorder for people who would rather talk than write.

"I just don't feel like I can trust what the U.S. Forest Service says or does anymore," Karen Hanson of Diamond Lake said into the microphone.

"I've been out of state and I've driven hours and hours to get here, because I'm torqued," said Pastor Dan Knapp of Cusick.

They were worried or angry, but mostly respectful. Several of the presenters said that wasn't the case Tuesday, when 77 people showed up for a similar meeting in the town of Metaline Falls.

The big difference between the two nights was a question-and-answer session Tuesday, where some in the audience fired off demeaning comments, one federal employee said. Those speakers were few in number, but the rest of the crowd didn't stop them.

"The objective of educating and informing people didn't happen," said Deane Osterman, natural resources director for the Kalispels.

So, the questioning and answering Wednesday was done informally, one on one.

Note from Citizen Review Editor:  This type of meeting setting is often used to keep people from being able to voice their opinions in front of the entire group - a "divide and conquer" method.  See Consensus techniques.


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