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Effort to Save Salmon In US Northwest A Tough Balancing Act - 2001-08-25


Federal and state agencies in the American Northwest are struggling to save populations of wild salmon from extinction. The salmon restoration effort in Oregon, Idaho and Washington State enjoys widespread public support despite the potential costs.

Fisherman Biff LeFors is so intent on watching his fishing line that he doesn't notice the pepole waving at him from a tour boat making its way down the Columbia River. "We just sit back here and drink beer, or whatever, and play," he said.

Biff and his fishing buddy, Lorne Gardener, are retirees who make the 45-minute drive from Portland to their favorite fishing spot as often as they can. "I like to fish. I take all mine and smoke them and give them away," Mr. Gardener said. "I don't eat salmon. I don't like salmon. I don't care for the taste of it at all. "I just love to catch them and now that I'm retired, I'm catching them."

A few kilometers away, Larry Cassidy stands beside what appears to be a giant water staircase alongside the Bonneville Dam. "We are looking at a huge ladder that sort of looks like an expanded stairway that you might use to go up to your bedroom, only the steps are about 25-feet wide," he said. "And the fish will go up those successive steps and get above this dam and work their way into the reservoir and will go forward to the next dam."

Mr. Cassidy is Chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council, a regional body set up by Congress to balance the need for hydroelectric power in the northwest with preserving the region's wild salmon runs.

The effort to save the wild Pacific Salmon involves nine federal agencies, several state and regional agencies as well as groups representing private industry and the area's native American Indian tribes.

Charles Hudson is with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the agency which regulates tribal fishing on the Columbia River and its tributaries. "Salmon represent the best means to transfer cultural values from one generation to the other," he said. "The very act of fishing, the very act of travelling to fishing sites, of the roles that men and women and children and elders play in Indian culture, is related to fish and the act of harvesting fish."

Environmentalists in the northwest have made the battle to save the salmon an important test of whether man can live in harmony with nature. Joe Whitworth is Executive Director of Oregon Trout, one of several organizations pushing to save the salmon and other endangered species threatened by the encroachment of civilization. "They are a symbol of prosperity. And so too, they can become a symbol of prosperity squandered," he said.

Back out on the Columbia, fishing guide Grant Putnam has had a pretty good day. His guests have caught four sea-run trout called steelhead and have vowed to return next year for another trip.

Grant Putnam supports the salmon restoration efforts in the Columbia Basin. But he also farms for a living and says any attempt to save the salmon must also take into consideration the water needs of farmers and ranchers in the area. "You know, I think that there is going to have to be, in some situations, some mitigating (relief for) that goes on with some of the farmers who are losing some of the water necessary for their livelihoods on years that water is short," he said. "And you know, the years that the water is there and in plentiful supply, you know, I think everybody can coexist pretty easily."

Despite one of the worst droughts on record this year, salmon returns in the Columbia River system are up. Though most of those fish returning were reared in hatcheries, the native runs are also up slightly.

That is a hopeful sign for federal officials working on the salmon restoration project. "I feel very positively. I feel the glass is half full. We have a problem. We are working on that problem," said Doug Arndt, Fisheries biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that built and maintains many dams in the northwest. "We will resolve that problem and we will have salmon populations for decades, for eons to come."

Northwest Power Planning Council Chairman Larry Cassidy is also optimistic about the future of salmon in the northwest. But he also has no illusions about how difficult, expensive or long it might take. "Balancing that act will test the true will of the community with regard to salmon," he said. "In general, everybody wants this to happen and it is happening. I can just tell you that it is not going to be easy and it is going to take a long time."

Here at the mouth of the Columbia, freighters laden with grain make their way down the river bound for Asia and the Middle East. The dams that allowed the Columbia to become a major inland waterway also reduced the wild salmon runs in the river from tens of millions a century ago to just a few hundred thousand today.

The challenge now for government, environmentalists and industry is finding enough of a balance between economic growth and nature so that cargo ships and salmon can share the same waterway for generations to come.