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  March/April 2000 Features:
Salmon's Second Coming
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High Noon in Cattle Country
 
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Sierra Magazine
Second Coming

Four obsolete dams are all that stand in the way of salmon surging back to the interior West.

By David James Duncan

Nature, for all its creative genius, has managed to bequeath North America just one species capable of journeying back and forth between the high altitude valleys of the continent's interior and the green Pacific swells a thousand miles away: the wild salmon. From a life spent in the proximity, and frequent hands-on company of these wonderful creatures, I have gleaned adventure, livelihood, delectable meals, deep gratitude—and a lifelong heartsickness caused by the salmon's rapid vanishing.

There are some who feel that our endangered wild salmon are "just a fish," and a fish of diminishing commercial value. Why, they ask, must we "waste money" and even threaten certain dams to prevent their extinction? Our industrialized rivers have changed, they say. Salmon haven't. Too bad for salmon. I never cease to marvel at this sort of thinking—completely oblivious to the forces that daily sustain our 78-percent-H20, solar-engined, wind-breathing, protein-needing bodies. Salmon are, among other things, one of Earth's perfect foods—for hundreds of interwoven species, not just humans. They are "just a fish" in the same sense that Earth is just a finite ship sailing a sea of uninhabitable space. In eradicating a vast watershed's major food species, we're removing irreplaceable planks from the hull of our ship for all time.

In the Columbia/Snake River system, four federal dams that provide just 5 percent of the region's electricity have wiped out 90 percent of the inland West's wild salmon in 25 years. I have asked electricity providers what difference it would make to consumers, in price or in service, to lose the dams. They answer, "No difference." There are 75,000 dams in the Lower 48. The removal of four dams would leave us 74,996. And it would leave us the salmon.

The interior West's wild salmon waken, at birth, to the pebbles and clear flow of a high mountain stream. The tiny fish bond not to a parent fish, but to the parenting stones and flow of their birth stream. For a full year, in some cases two, fingerlings cling to this unlikely madonna, imbibing her unique chemistry, memorizing all they can about her. Then, at the nautically unpromising length of five inches, they obey their blood and the parent stream's incessant downward urging and set out on a journey that makes the Odyssey look tame.

All five strains of chinook make the marathon swim from the inland West's mountains to the Pacific, but it's the way spring and summer chinook do it that really gets me. Fasting like holy pilgrims, their bodies quivering like flames, these two-year-old na•fs travel the entire distance—800 miles or more—backward. As the current sweeps them seaward, tail-first, they gaze steadfastly upriver toward the mountains, like kindergartners backing ruefully away from home toward a first day at school. They've got plenty to be rueful about: 99.75 percent of them won't live to see their birth stream again.

The smolts' migration must be swift, or they starve. There is also a limited window during which they can make the metabolic transformation from freshwater to saltwater. In the pre-dam era the Columbia/ Snake's mighty spring runoff carried smolts up to 900 miles in as little as five days. Now, with a total of eight dams, the same journey takes six weeks or more.

Gail Ater of Gouge Eye, Idaho, is one of four intrepid souls who in 1995 swam the astounding sockeye-smolt migration route from Redfish Lake, 7,000 feet up in the Sawtooth Mountains, down to the first of the four notorious dams on the lower Snake River. In the unfettered Salmon River, Ater says, the swimmers were carried an effortless 30 miles a day by "just staying afloat and watching for rocks." Then they hit the 40-mile slackwater behind Lower Granite Dam. "You hear the word impoundment differently forever," Ater says, "once you've approached one by swimming four-hundred-and-fifty miles of free-flowing river. Soon as we hit slackwater, a ten-day emotional high became the Bataan Death Swim. Headwinds, three-foot whitecaps, the same boring chunk of basalt in the distance, though you've swum for hours. Five miles a day was torture. We almost gave up."

Still far from the dam, the swimmers saw a fleet of boats approaching. It was the Nez Percé—the same tribe that kept the Lewis and Clark expedition from unraveling 200 years before—come to honor the group's gesture. The swimmers found fresh strength, made it to the dam, and were fêted, feasted, and made honorary members of the tribe.

But at the point where the humans faltered, the smolts still have seven slackwaters, eight dams, and 400 miles left to traverse. And in each slackwater they encounter an array of predacious bass, walleyes, and the other smolt-devouring artists whose populations have exploded thanks to the slackwaters' elevated temperatures. Lack of current brings migration to a near standstill. The fasting juveniles waste energy seeking river flow. The John Day slackwater alone is 80 miles long. The desert in summer is a furnace. The same temperatures that give voracity to warm-water predators are, by July, deadly to smolts. Schools of salmonids can circle slackwaters for weeks, unable to sense the way to the sea.

When their metabolic-transition clocks run out of time, they become baitfish. Anglers aren't fools. The bass lure of choice in all eight impoundments is a four-inch Rapalla the green-backed color of a bewildered chinook smolt. When they reach the dams, the young salmon that travel deep are summarily crushed by turbines, 8 to 15 percent at each dam; eight dams in all; end of story. The smolts that travel shallow are hurtled over spillways, which kill just 2 percent or less per dam, but only if river current is sent over spillways rather than through turbines. To the region's hydroelectric profiteers, this means that "their" generators are being "robbed" of kilowatt dollars by juvenile salmon. Hence the long, bitter fight for the very flow of this river—and the shocking resentment, among industrial river-users, of five-inch travelers, fasting as they drift, gazing back toward long-lost, mothering mountains. Only because of the Endangered Species Act have these embattled innocents begun to encounter spillways and fish bypass systems instead of killing turbines.

The lucky, starving smolts that reach saltwater encounter fresh trials, such as a sterile shipping channel where a food-rich estuary should be, and a manmade island now harboring the world's largest colony of smolt-eating Caspian terns. But the fish that reach the Pacific, even today, put on silvery muscle fast, and for the next two to three years travel distances that put every inlander but circumpolar birds and long-haul truckers to shame. Some Idaho chinook swim 10,000 miles at sea. They've been caught off the coast of Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands. Diving so deep at times as to be untraceable, swimming too far too fast to be followed, ocean salmon maintain the ability—so troubling to those who would control them completely—to elude the radar of human knowing.

Yet no matter how far they rove or how big and strong they grow, there comes a day when they hear in their blood the song that leads them to abandon the sea and seek again their high mountain place of birth. The journey is always fatal. Every salmonid undertakes it even so. And when they've conquered the eight-dam gauntlet, parsed the currents, rediscovered the mothering stretch of pebbles and snowmelt, they begin, despite all they've endured, to make love.

But not to a mate. On the eastern edge of Idaho last fall, 700 miles from the sea, I watched a single female chinook, with great, crimson-gilled gasps of effort, turn her ocean-built body into a shovel and dig, in the unforgiving bone of the continent, a home for offspring she would not live long enough to see. I watched her lay eggs so tender the touch of a child's fingertip would crush them; eggs exactly the color of setting suns. I watched the darker, fierce-kyped male ease in front of those suns without once touching the female, and send milt melting down into her nest of stones. I watched the paired chinook circle their pebbled redd, tending it, guarding it. Only incidentally did they touch each other. Because they weren't making love to one another. They were making love to the very land and water, to broken bits of mountain and melting snows.

I left them to die, as salmon do, their clutch of eggs orphaned in a frigid gravel womb. As I write these words, winter has snapped down hard in the Rockies. Snow is mounting high. But in that ice-covered streambed nest, which the female covered with protective pebbles with her last few strokes of life, tiny eyes are even now appearing in her sun-colored eggs.

There is a fire in water. There is an invisible flame, hidden in water, that creates not heat but life. And in this bewildering age, no matter how dark or glib some humans work to make it, wild salmon still climb rivers and mountain ranges in absolute earnest, solely to make contact with that flame. Words can't reach deep or high enough to embody this wonder. Only wild salmon can embody it. Each migration, each annual return from the sea, these incomparable creatures climb our inland mountains and sacrifice their lives, that tiny silver beings may be born of an impossible watery flame.

These are the "declining commercial species" that we are eradicating from the West for all time.

The Columbia/Snake system is one of just three great refugia of Pacific salmon on Earth. Its hundreds of rivers required millennia to evolve our hardy indigenous salmon and steelhead. These wild strains are the genetic engine that gives us all salmon, even those raised in netpens and hatcheries. Dolly the sheep notwithstanding, humans do not know how to create and maintain a viable race of salmonids. Hatchery fish are, essentially, big batches of identical first cousins rapidly inbreeding themselves into genetic inferiority and nonexistence. ("Homeless seagoing spam," salmon bard Tom Jay calls them.) It is our resilient, diverse wild stocks alone that give artificial stocks a fleeting viability before technological incest destroys them.

This is why the countless attempts to "repair" vanished salmon runs with hatchery fish have failed for 40 years. It's like trying to replace Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven with Yanni, Yanni, and Yanni. Borrowing eggs from an alien species, dumping them in a river, and expecting the newcomers to magically pick up survival and migrational instincts acquired over thousands of years by their extinct wild predecessor is a hopeless industrial dream. To cite one of countless failures, the vanishing sockeye of Idaho's Redfish Lake were replaced in the 1990s with 3 million Canadian sockeye eggs three years in a row. The number of sockeye from these 9 million eggs that adapted and returned as adults: zero. A dam is not a biological treasure. A dam is an inanimate, river-altering tool with a life span of about 100 years, created by humans to serve humans. Most of our 75,000 dams were built before negative biological, economic, or cultural impacts were considered, and many have done more harm than good. Learning from our mistakes, we now weigh at least some of the long-term damages of dams against their benefits.

Historically, Americans have often been slow to retire dangerous tools, because tool retirement usually comes with a price tag. We're getting faster, though. Only by retiring tools fiercely defended by profitmakers have we ceased to be the land of thalidomide infants, asbestos-ceilinged schoolrooms, DDT trucks dousing residential streets, Dalkon Shield IUDs, and explosion-prone cars. The time has come for the four lower Snake River dams to join these other tools in retirement.

The eight federal dams that bar the journey of the inland West's salmon are not created equal. The four on the Columbia have brought both benefits and disasters. Among the disasters: the mass extinction of dozens of salmon runs; the impoverishment of hundreds of local fishing communities and salmon-dependent Indians; and the 1957 inundation (behind The Dalles Dam) of the lower Columbia's Celilo Falls—for ten millennia the greatest tribal gathering place west of the Mississippi, drawing salmon celebrants and neolithic traders from as far away as Central America. Among the benefits: hydropower, navigation, flood control, and, thanks to abundant electricity, the aluminum that became the aircraft that helped win World War II.The four Columbia dams have been retrofitted to accommodate safer salmon passage; they now assist, if awkwardly, in flushing migratory smolts to sea. With changes in operations policy (particularly at John Day) and an unbiased look at the aluminum industry's deadly waste of power, they could keep salmon mortality at an "acceptable" low rate.

The four dams on the Snake are an agonizingly different story. Conceived at the paranoid height of the cold war, they were bitterly opposed even then for the damage they were certain to inflict on the Northwest's salmon-dependent economy. Among their opponents: President Dwight Eisenhower; the Army Corps that later built them; the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and game; the region's 13 Native tribes; the West Coast's multibillion-dollar fishing industry; and the majority of the region's salmon-loving populace. But cold war politics won out. In 1955, craving a four-dam hydropower saber to rattle at the Soviets at any cost, Congress approved the dams. When they came online, wild salmon runs, as predicted, crashed.

Something few people know: The Snake River dams are of a type known as "run of the river," which offer no flood-control storage. The Northwest's far right foretells catastrophic floods with the dams gone. It's a lie. The reservoirs of these dams must be kept within three feet of the top for the sake of their navigation locks. Two more absurdities: for months at a time these dams turn only one or two turbines (the Columbia dams, on average, turn ten or more). Nor do the dams provide significant storage for irrigation. Although water is pumped from the Ice Harbor Reservoir, if the dam were removed, the farmers could place their intake pipes in the free-flowing river---a fraction of a day's work!

The truth is that, beyond their pitifully limited hydroelectric function, the Snake River dams were a pork-barrel present to the mountain town of Lewiston, Idaho, which hankered to be a seaport—450 miles inland. But the Lewiston "port" is primarily a trucking depot, and receives no ocean-going vessels. And its barges plow right alongside railroads and highways that until 1975 carried its cargo at no cost to salmon---or to U.S. citizens, who have since pumped billions into dam and port construction and operations, and $3 billion more into failed efforts to redress the dams' deadly effects on salmon.

And it's not just the Snake. Lewiston's "port" also places a hangman's noose around the fish of Oregon's Imnaha, Grande Ronde, Wenaha, Lostine, Minam, Wallowa, and Powder rivers, Idaho's South and Main Clearwater, North, South and Middle Salmon, Selway, Rapid, Lochsa, and many more, strangling the economies of towns throughout the region, along the Columbia, and up and down the Pacific Coast. In 1993 the sport fishery for just one Snake River species—the summer steelhead—generated $90 million and created 2,700 jobs, even with the run in semi-ruins. (The same year the Lewiston port directly employed 22 people.) The four dams' removal, according to the Army Corps, will create 12,000 new jobs. Economic studies say dam removal would generate long-term billions. Yet subsidy recipients and their political supporters have constructed a pro-dam propaganda machine that views any criticism of this deadly "port" as treason.

The politics of salmon recovery are as hideous as salmon are beautiful. The dams of the Snake have not just impounded life-giving current: They've created a quasi-culture of slackwater politicians whose hysterical rhetoric has instilled vague yet paralyzing fear in the hearts of federal lawmakers. But what is the substance of these fears? Who are these regional "leaders" trying to convince us to ignore biological reality and spiritual integrity? Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) asks how her state's salmon could possibly be in trouble when she sees canned salmon stacked in her local supermarket—conveniently ignoring that it came from Alaska. Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) sees in the removal of Snake River dams a new "domino theory" that will bring down all dams, everywhere, and leave us in a Mad Max-style postindustrial wasteland ravaged by biblical floods (caused, no less, by the removal of four dams that offer no flood control). Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) responds to rigorous Army Corps analyses linking salmon with jobs and prosperity by accusing the Corps of being stoned. Idaho's ruling Republicans are exploring the possibility of building a 400-mile-long water-filled pipe down which to flush endangered juvenile salmon from Idaho all the way to the Columbia estuary, like unwanted turds. The day a slackwater politician comes up with a cogent, altruistic reason to sacrifice the inland West's salmon to their agendas, I'll eat my trout flies. All five boxes.

Ian Gill is chair of Ecotrust, an organization that develops intelligent, sustainable economic opportunities for small communities. Fresh back from Lewiston, Gill said the visit reminded him of the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo, whose crazed hero stops at nothing to drag a stern-wheeler riverboat over a mountain in Brazil. "There was a conquistador mentality afoot during the cold war," Gill said. "Here in Canada they talked of building a canal from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay, of reversing the flow of a major river, of building thirty-mile bridges from the mainland to Vancouver Island when ferries served. This fifties engineering mentality explains Lewiston's port, but doesn't excuse it. Do we live with fifties' acts of idiocy, or do we set to work and undo them?"

So far, we live with, and salmon die from, the idiocies: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams came on line in 1962, 1969, 1970, and 1975, respectively. Their legacy so far:

•1986: all Idaho, Oregon, and Washington coho dependent on the Snake River migratory corridor, extinct;
•1990 to 1999: 20 sockeye, in total, returned to the same vast system;
•1997: all surviving Snake system salmon and steelhead threatened or endangered; •1998: 306 wild chinook returned to the system (down from tens of thousands per run);
•1999: Idaho spring/summer chinook, once the largest run of its kind in the world, down to 2,400 returning adults, leaving many key streams with no spawning for the first time in history;
•2017: extinction of all the inland West's salmon predicted.

The Soviet Union is dissolved. The cold war is won. Five percent of a region's hydropower is not "strategic." Its web of life is. Lewiston, Idaho, can ignore its railways and highways and enjoy a piddling wheat-barging operation---or the nation can continue to have wild Pacific salmon and a $500-million-a-year sustainable fishing enterprise. We can't have both.

A century ago the U.S. government defined salmon as a commercial species, thus bequeathing the problems of salmon not to federal fish people, but to money people: namely, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS (pronounced "nymphs"). This agency is, so to speak, the mind and the Army Corps the muscle of salmon recovery under the Endangered Species Act. But in three decades of stewardship, that mind has shown itself to be as false to salmon as Shakespeare's Iago was to Othello.

In 1993, deep into the dam-caused extinctions, NMFS scientists proclaimed that the Columbia/Snake hydroelectric system "poses no jeopardy" to the recovery of Snake River fish—an incomprehensible lie coming from the salmon's scientific defender. Outraged salmon lovers were forced to take NMFS to court, where Judge Malcolm Marsh, in a landmark decision, found the agency's science "arbitrary and capricious" and ordered it to rewrite its biological opinion, this time incorporating the expertise of state and tribal fisheries biologists.

Seemingly chastened, the NMFS/Corps team commenced the most scientifically rigorous analysis of a fish species and watershed ever conducted on this planet, accompanied by a federal promise that the study's science, being the best humanity has, would determine the course of recovery. After four years of arduous effort, the study concluded that technical fixes would never restore viable runs, and that existing strategies of river use would lead to certain extirpation of inland salmon, but that if the Snake River dams were removed our endangered salmon would have an 80 to 100 percent likelihood not just of surviving but of flourishing.

Salmon lovers were ecstatic. After 50 years of federal indecision, it was time to act. What happened instead? The study's conclusions were squelched, falsified, and politically spun, not just by the far right, but by the salmon's supposed champion. Suddenly NMFS began to raise "other threats" known all along—ocean conditions, overfishing, habitat degradation—as arguments against dam removal. This is like refusing to remove a tumor from a man because his arm is broken. It's also sickeningly familiar. Here is a 1965 tobacco industry medical expert: "Research . . . indicates many possible causes of lung cancer. . . . There is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause is. . . . More study is needed." And here are NMFS "salmon experts," cited and paraphrased last October by The New York Times: "The salmon involves our whole way of doing things. There is no simple, easily defined enemy." "[Salmon] could be rescued by some means short of dam breaching." "One option would be to wait."

Dangerous and superfluous dams are being removed all over the United States—465 of them as of late 1999, with many more scheduled to go—and when dams go, sea-run fish return. On Butte Creek, a Sacramento River tributary, dam removal has helped turn a 1987 chinook run of 44 fish into a 1998 run of 20,000. The pre-dam Snake system produced great salmon and steelhead runs in the 1960s despite the Columbia dams. The fall chinook of the Hanford Reach of the Columbia are thriving today, though they traverse the same Columbia dams as the vanishing salmon of Idaho. The sole difference between prolific life and doom: the four Snake River dams. Yet NMFS bureaucrats, far from defending salmon, keep using R. J. ReynoldsÐstyle PR to subvert their own best science and defend the dams. It's as if the Marsh decision and the comprehensive study never took place.

Iago is a subtle betrayer. Consider the NMFS/Corps juvenile-salmon transport program. This ostentatious technological boondoggle purports to "save" migrating smolts from turbines and slackwater by ceding the river to its industrial abusers, trapping fragile smolts in multimillion-dollar Inspector Gadget gizmos, handling and tagging them (often fatally) in the name of research, shooting them through whirligig bypass systems that disorient like Disney rides, sluicing them into overcrowded trucks and barges, shipping them like coal or plywood for 300 miles, and dumping them---with no notion of what planet they're now on—below Bonneville Dam, where a crowd of industry officials and media stand cheering on the bank while, down in the river, an unphotographable horde of predators awaits a disoriented smolt feast. The NMFS scientists then solemnly count the dead 2 percent left floating in their state-of-the-art taxpayer-duping barges, fail to factor in the 40 to 60 percent of barged smolts that later "mysteriously disappear" and the 99.75 percent that never return to spawn as adults, and call their transport program "a 98 percent success."

This is salmon-betraying drivel. Even Commerce Department biologists know that the only meaningful measure of recovery is the number of adult salmon that return from the ocean to reproduce in home streams. By this measure the smolt-transport program is a disaster. The smolt-to-adult return range needed for salmon recovery is 2 to 6 percent. The average adult return under NMFS is a dismal 0.25 percent. In the real world, employees with this kind of "success" rate are fired. In the federal world, Iago just smiles, spins the statistics of failure, and says, "Let's study it further"—and the Clinton administration has so far supported this anti-scientific subterfuge.

I would remind an author named Al Gore of his own take on this kind of delay. In Earth in the Balance, protesting the stubborn denial of global warming, Gore wrote, "It is all too easy to exaggerate the uncertainty and overstudy the problem—and some people do just that—in order to avoid an uncomfortable conclusion. . . . [A] choice to 'do nothing' in response to mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate . . . the catastrophe at hand" (emphasis Gore's). When migratory creatures are denied their life-giving migration, they are no longer migratory creatures: They are kidnap victims, held hostage for a ransom of unconscionable dams. The name of the living vessel in which wild salmon evolved and still thrive is not "fish bypass system," "submergible diversionary strobe-light," or "barge." It is River. And this is the last thing the NMFS/Corps team is willing to give them.

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