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Columbia River Dissenters Series
Tape 1, Side 1
8 May 1998
WW = WENDY WILSON
CH = CLARK HANSEN
OHS Inv. #2702
Wendy Wilson was born in 1956 in Madison, Wisconsin. Wilson obtained a Bachelors degree in Natural Resources from the University of Michigan. After college, Wilson worked for five years at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1984, Wilson moved to Idaho and became Executive Director of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL). Her work with the ICL included derailing the McClure Wilderness Bill, a bill that would have allowed road-building throughout all of the lands in Idaho that had been set aside by the Forest Service as protected wilderness. In 1985, Wilson left the Idaho Conservation League and founded Friends of the Payette. In 1987, Friends of the Payette ran a state campaign in the Idaho Legislature to establish the State Protected Rivers Program. In the early 1990s, Wilson helped to establish Idaho Rivers United (IRU), an environmental group concerned with the protection of salmon and other conservation issues that relate to river use. In 1999 she retired from her Executive Director position with IRU and worked as a political consultant for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition's Snake River Campaign.
C.H.: This is an interview with Wendy Wilson at Idaho Rivers United in Boise, Idaho. The interviewer for the Oregon Historical Society is Clark Hansen, the date is May 8th, 1998, and this is Tape 1, Side 1. I thought we might begin first by getting some background on when and where you were born and raised and where you grew up.
W.W.: Okay. I was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on a small farm outside of town, actually a little town called Dexter, and grew up in that college town’s liberal environment and moved west because I had been running a recycling program and saving a lot of trees and a lot of natural resources and was eager to actually see the trees that I had saved through my years of running a recycling program.
C.H.: When were you born?
W.W.: In 1956 in Madison, Wisconsin.
C.H.: And did you have siblings?
W.W.: I'm the youngest of five daughters, and my father was an associate professor at the University of Michigan in environmental education. So I originally went into environmental education at the school of natural resources and quickly became more interested in policy issues. After graduating with a degree in natural resources, I became the staff person heading the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor for four or five years before I decided to move out west.
C.H.: And why did you come out here? Did you come directly out to Boise?
W.W.: I came out to Idaho, got a job as the Executive Director of Idaho Conservation League, which was working on wilderness issues at the time. One of the primary things that interested me in this job was the opportunity to work on salmon and steelhead restoration. In Michigan I had taken up a little bit of steelhead fishing and discovered that it was just a tremendous experience - the Pierre Marquette River and the Manistee and the Little Manistee and some of those creeks up in Northern Michigan were where my heart was. However, I discovered that because of the heavy metal pollutants in the Great Lakes that if one intended to have children you could not eat the flesh of the fish thus caught on those rivers. And that fact, which seemed completely unfair and completely permanent, really drove me to decide to leave Michigan, and the idea that there were still salmon and steelhead in the West that you could not only fish but eat was a big incentive to moving out here. I arrived here only to discover that - let's see, that was in 1984 - that coho were declared extinct the year I arrived, the Snake River coho, and in fact the problems were far greater than I ever imagined. The Great Lakes to me seemed like a huge experiment in fisheries mismanagement, and to the extent that they no longer have lake trout, the lamprey devastation and then the alewives - year after year the Great Lakes seemed to be one fishery screw-up after the next, and to this day they have a hard time maintaining sustainable populations, even though you can't eat most of the fish in the system anymore. So I was thinking that the West would be wild and pure and clean.
C.H.: You came out in what year?
W.W.: In 1984.
C.H.: What was your first impression when you got here?
W.W.: My first impression was that anyone who worked on salmon issues was crazy because it was hopelessly caught in in-fighting between the tribes and the state agencies, and that there was no reasonable course of action for conservationists without getting bogged down in the infighting between the two sides. The Power Council - in 1984 there was still some hope that the Power Council might be doing the right thing, and like many people I looked away from the salmon issue for a number of years, thinking that the Power Council had it under control and that there was really no need for citizen involvement at that point.
C.H.: How much did you know about the history of the salmon and he rivers and the issues behind them before your arrival here?
W.W.: Not very much. I think, you know, you learn "Roll On, Columbia
" in elementary school when you're in the Midwest, and the impression is that the system all worked so well, and the impression is that even though dams have blocked some habitat that there's hatcheries, thank goodness there's hatcheries to cover those losses. The Indians have bigger reservations out here than they do in the Midwest and still have a resource to call on. And in comparison, of course, it looked in the 80s like the system was stronger than fisheries in the Midwest, which at that point, of course it wasn’t. Disputes with tribes on fishing in the Midwest were quite high at that time, too. So yes, I was extremely naive about just how bad the situation already was with salmon, and I think that the apparent - what's the right word? - the agencies want everyone to think that they have the situation under control, that “it was solved just six months ago” when they started working on it, or when an individual was appointed to such-and-such a position. I mean, yes, everyone had always admitted that the situation was “very dire last year, but thank goodness we're now using good science, and thank goodness we're all cooperating and working together.” I think in 1984, '85, I actually to some extent believed that, “that thank goodness some of the old guard were finally retiring and real serious people could get down to business,” and “this water budget thing is going to get worked out very quickly. We'd have a water budget for fish, and that would fix it.”
C.H.: When you came out here did you know that you were going to be the Executive Director of Idaho Conservation League or was that after you got out here?
W.W.: No, I had come on a couple of river trips in Idaho and was very impressed by the Salmon River and just the wild nature of Idaho's rivers, and so I selected Idaho based on my interest in being around white water. I moved to Idaho after I applied for and was selected for the Idaho Conservation League job.
C.H.: And when you started with the League, what issues were you working on with then?
W.W.: We were attempting to derail the McClure Wilderness Bill in 1984, which was derailed, and that would have set aside - I can't remember the absolute numbers now; I think it was 900,000 acres of land as wilderness and would have released another eight million acres from further consideration as wilderness. So that was a major victory to stop the release language that was in the McClure bill in 1984. It would have allowed road building throughout all of the roadless lands in Idaho that had been set aside through the Forest Service process.
C.H.: And when did you begin working, then, on fish-related issues?
W.W.: Well, in '84 and '85 we attempted to get involved in the water budgeting process, and the restoration of steelhead and salmon in those roadless areas, we saw that as sort of part and parcel, that you had to protect the wilderness areas, and that fish were the embodiment of the wild nature of those areas. So wilderness and fish were more closely tied at that point in Idaho conservationists' minds.
C.H.: Is that unusual, or-?
W.W.: I think that it's changed a lot because the wilderness areas have persisted and the fish have not over the last decade. So we used to say, "If you protect the wilderness, then you will have fish, and fish are good," and go into communities like Salmon and Challis and have public hearings that were pro-wilderness based on the power of fish as a community motivator. Well, the fish runs have dwindled and dwindled, so in Idaho, unlike, say, Oregon and Washington, the link between wilderness and fish is not as strong as it should be. We have wilderness areas that have great habitat for fish that are 95 percent vacant of fish. It's like a big hotel with nobody in it.
C.H.: Whereas in Oregon - what was the difference with the situation there, then?
W.W.: Well, in Oregon, where wildernesses have been protected and fish can get to them, the fish come, and here they don't come because of the management of the Columbia and Snake River system and the massive blocks of concrete that block their path.
C.H.: And when did you or your organization come to the conclusion that it was actually the dams that were the major problem, or has that been recognized all along?
W.W.: Well, I think Ed Chaney had the attention of most of the Idaho conservationists in the mid-80s and had taught us much of what we knew about fish restoration and was always very clear on our need to focus on the main stem of the river and management of the water system. My organization, Idaho Conservation League, wasn't really able to do that because the thing that bound our members together was the wilderness areas. So that's when Idaho Salmon and Steelhead Unlimited was formed to unify fishers, fishermen and fisher-women, on working on salmon issues - not from the perspective of saving the wilderness but of the management of the main stem river. Certainly Mitch Sanchotena can speak to that; from my perspective, having been the Executive Director of the Idaho Conservation League, which was at that point the only really large conservation group in Idaho. The Idaho Wildlife Federation certainly had more members than Idaho Conservation League in this time period, but was not staffed. We welcomed Idaho Salmon and Steelhead Unlimited forming to help organize around these issues without making them completely dependent on the preservation of wilderness, that there's other ways to save the fish. So sort of the need for ISSU was because of the conservation groups' inability to expand the scope of what they were already doing to include a more comprehensive plan for saving salmon and steelhead.
C.H.: And how many people were there, are there, in the Idaho Conservation League?
W.W.: Let's see, there were probably only about 1300 in the Idaho Conservation League in the early 80s. Today there's more like 2500 dues-paying members. ISSU, I really don't know the numbers for them. I think it's around - well, I couldn't say. I think it's 2,000 or something. Idaho Rivers United formed in 1990, and we have about 1700 members now. So there's been an overall growth in the membership of conservation groups in Idaho. Idaho Wildlife Federation was the only other existing group, which has always had a large membership. They're the National Wildlife Federation affiliate, so they've always had a large membership through their affiliate groups. But they were less active during parts of the 80s and 90s than they are now.
C.H.: Within your own organization, as these debates came up about the issues and being more - this is with the Idaho Conservation League - did you try to bring up the issue of fish with them, and were they willing to consider that?
W.W.: Well, yeah. Before I even came on as Director, Pat Ford had already launched a salmon project at the Idaho Conservation League. We couldn't get funding. None of the regional funders were interested in protecting fish in Idaho.
C.H.: Who were those? Who were the regional funders?
W.W.: Well, the foundations, I should say. Bullitt wasn't nearly as big as it is now, Harder, Lazar, Steele Reese was a funder for a while of some of our salmon work, I think, in the mid-80s, but we did it on a shoestring. We did it just with whatever money our members could scrape together. There was a focus on the mining reform effort, and that kind of stuff was considered kind of sexier by some of the environmental funders at the time. We tried to pull it all together and say, you know, "You have to save the fish if you're going to save the ecosystem," but really the opportunity for public involvement wasn't there in the mid-80s that you need to run a solid campaign.
C.H.: Maybe you could explain a little bit about the mining issues and what part they were playing in terms of the effect that they were having on the Columbia River Basin.
W.W.: Well, there's a lot of old mines, and the gold market - heap-leach gold mining had just really taken off in the early 80s in this state, with the price of gold fluctuating at a point where it was just barely profitable, but profitable enough to set up a heap-leach and unprofitable enough to abandon it. So that was very scary, but we have a lot less of that now than we did then. There's a lot of old sites that have been worked that are essentially patented lands that are in-holdings in the wilderness, in the Frank Church Wilderness, and many of those were scheduled to be reopened. Many of them have been, and there's a lot of concern about acid mine drainage from those facilities - cyanide, you know, just sedimentation in general. Some of those soils up there in the Idaho high country are extremely unstable. And the Dewey Mine, some of these mines just had horrible histories of failures, and that wipes out a lot of salmon habitat. The Blackbird Mine on Panther Creek, you know, from the old cobalt operations there cost an entire river in terms of fishery, the whole river was wiped out from the World War II area. The BPA was seen as sort of the deep pocket to pay for a lot of mine land reclamation. And you know, frankly, the Fish and Wildlife Program has been a tremendous - oh, disincentive for the agencies to fight BPA; BPA pays them so much money to keep their environmental restoration projects going, to this day it's hard to find the state agencies really all that eager to fight BPA because they are such a huge contributor to their budgets.
C.H.: You mentioned the 1872 Mining Act. Could you explain what the purpose of that was and why it's causing problems now?
W.W.: Well, I wasn't alive in 1872, so I'm not sure I can tell you the whole purpose of it, but essentially it was to encourage capitalization of the mining boom in the West and allow open access to anyone with the capital to mine public lands in the West. The 1872 Mining Act allows those lands to then become privately owned through the patenting process. Whether or not you find a substantial amount of ore on the property, if you keep working at it long enough then you can patent it and it's yours and you can sell it to whomever wants to buy it. So that's certainly not unique to the Columbia watershed, but the history of Idaho is a mining history. Idaho exists because of gold fields in Idaho and because every gold field has millionaires, and two of them got to be U.S. Senators - if you have your own state.
C.H.: Who was that?
W.W.: I'm not sure I can tell you the first Senators from Idaho. But I think Men to Match My Mountains, by Irving Stone, has a great part on that, the different states getting their own Senators. Idaho became a state shortly thereafter, and we have a lot of old 1872 mining claim lands in our wilderness areas which are a constant problem - you know, from Thunder Mountain up in the headwaters of the middle fork and the south fork, you know, to the Blackbird situation over on Panther Creek. Mining and logging is what made Idaho, and both mining and logging and agriculture nuke fish. At ICL, as I recall, I went to Idaho Power Company in 1984 and asked for money to help us with our salmon restoration work, and the then-CEO of Idaho Power, Jim Bruce, told me that, first of all, as a woman I should be very happy with the electrification of the Snake River, that it reduced my domestic load with the advent of vacuum cleaners and such things, and secondly, that the dams hardly killed any fish at all because the fish were pretty much dead by the time they built Hell's Canyon and even Swan Falls because of the impact of mining and agriculture and logging operations in the Columbia River Basin. And while I don't disagree that the salmon were in trouble as early as the turn of the century because of hydraulic mining - hydraulic mining in Idaho completely wiped out the Salmon River, the lower Salmon, if you go through there, you can see the old Chinese mining sites, and the action of building Hells Canyon totally cut off over 1/3 of the Snake River salmon habitat. This is a permanent habitat loss that can’t be restored without dam removal.
C.H.: Because of the sedimentation and ...
W.W.: Yeah, I mean just entire hillsides that have been taken down that now, to the untrained eye, look just like natural erosion, but it's clearly not, and I can't even imagine how horrible it must have been, what the impact must have been to the salmon runs and salmon beds. The whole Salmon River was just turned over and demolished. I can't imagine that you could have age [?] classes of fish that could survive that kind of degradation. So the dams didn't start the decline of Idaho salmon, as I'm sure you know, but certainly from Idaho Power's perspective, they felt that they weren't responsible by themselves for the demise of the fish because the fish were already in trouble when they built the dams. I should say that Idaho Power did give Idaho Conservation League, at my request, I think it was $10,000 back then, to work with them in opposition to new small hydro power dams that were proposed throughout the basin.
C.H.: Why were they supportive of that?
W.W.: Because they didn't - I think Jim Bruce actually, you know, loved the fish and was in fact teaching both his sons, Steve and Bob Bruce, to fish, and I think that Joe Jordan, you know, to the extent that he was involved in building the Hell's Canyon complex - they really didn't believe that the fish would die. I really don't think that they believed it would be as bad as it was after the dams were built.
C.H.: But if they were trying to get you to support an effort to keep more dams from being built, how could they justify their own dams as not having had an impact on the salmon?
W.W.: Well, corporate hypocrisy is not a problem, is it? But I think what you're trying to get at is that PURPA projects, the small hydro power projects that because of the Federal Public Utility Regulatory Purposes Act that Idaho Power actually has to pay for the power generated by those small facilities, and they were in a period of surplus, they didn't need the power, it was more expensive for them. So yes, there was no real corporate need for those small dams to be put in and they're just a liability.
C.H.: These wouldn't be their dams; they would be dams that other people would be building?
W.W.: Would be building and then would have the right to sell Idaho Power the power regardless of whether Idaho Power wants to buy it. Idaho Power has always fought the co-generation requirements of PURPA.
C.H.: But isn't that in a sense asking the Idaho Conservation League to limit their competition, then, by being against other dams being built?
W.W.: Well, you know, the ethics of taking money from companies is always, you know, an interesting one. We were already opposing those dams, so it didn't affect our policy. We had already made the decision that enough was enough and we were going to try to stop those dams. At this point now, I don't take money from Idaho Power; Idaho Rivers United did request funding from IPC in the early 1990s for an in-school education program, but is no longer engaged in that program. I don't ask them for money, except for specific projects that they need to fund that aren't necessarily my projects but that they should be putting resources towards. But I don't think that Idaho Power's intent in supporting salmon restoration in the 1980s was in any way a bad thing. I think that they have in the past felt like they have done what has been required of them, and that if the regulators were any more stringent in their requirements, that they would do that, too. That's been what they've put forward. The thing is that, you know, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told them to do certain things to mitigate for the effects of Hell's Canyon. They did those certain things, and they didn't work. So whose fault is that? Is it Idaho Power's, or is it the federal government's? I think it's both, but from Idaho Power's perspective, hey, they did what they were told.
[End of Tape 1, Side 1]
Tape 1, Side 2
8 May 1998
C.H.: This is an interview with Wendy Wilson. This is Tape 1, Side 2. When did you leave the Idaho Conservation League?
W.W.: In 1985.
C.H.: And from there you went to --?
W.W.: I worked with the Peregrine Fund. I worked as an independent consultant for a number of nonprofits, including Snake River Alliance and Trial Lawyers Association. And then I founded Friends of the Payette, which was essentially a spin-off from Idaho White water Association. The north fork of the Payette had been proposed for a hydro power dam for a number of years. The Idaho Power Company had originally had a license that was not developed because the Idaho Public Utilities Commission ruled that there was no need for the power in Idaho, and at that point Idaho Power was not able to market beyond Idaho, I suppose, so they got a ruling from PUC denying their ability to rate base it to Idaho customers, so they didn't build it. Then private developers came in - J.R. Simplot announced with some fanfare that he intended to dam the north fork of the Payette River, and in an interview with the Idaho Statesman he said that it would probably take him a couple million dollars to get the ecology kicks out of the road - I remember the phrase "the ecology kicks out of the road" -- but that he was willing to make the investment. And you know, as I said, my first love was Idaho white water, and I wondered how high he was willing to take that, and I decided to try to up the ante on him and see if maybe three or four million dollars might not dissuade him. I kind of came out of retirement as an environmental activist by that challenge in the newspaper, by such an arrogant and wealthy man, that essentially this is a public river, for goodness sakes. The water is held in trust for the people of the state by the State, the bed of the stream is owned by the State of Idaho. The waters are waters of the United States of America, and he was seeing it as free fuel to run a turbine and then charge Idaho Power for the privilege of giving them power that they didn't have a market for. The whole system just seemed so preposterous to me - I thought the north fork of the Payette was and still is, you know, the Mt. Everest of kayaking in this country, and I do not kayak the north fork of the Payette, I'm not good enough, never have been, but felt that one guy shouldn't be able to get away with that. So we formed Friends of the Payette in 1987 and ran a state campaign in the Idaho legislature to establish the State Protected Rivers Program, which - the State Protected Rivers Program in Idaho is tiered to the 1986 Congressional action, the Electrical Consumers Protection Act, which says that a state can be in control of rivers and that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will not overrule a state on matters of building dams on rivers if the state has a comprehensive plan for managing the rivers and deciding what rivers will be developed and what rivers won't. So we built a comprehensive planning process for Idaho and established a State Protected Rivers Program. There were five original rivers in the system; the Payette was one of them. And since it was a river where about 40 percent of the electorate in the state of Idaho drive up and down the north fork of the Payette at least once a year, it's a high profile showcase river, the Everest of white water, and this millionaire who thinks he owns the state wanted it for his own. So it was a great campaign issue. We won in the legislature in a very contentious vote, but I had been a lobbyist in the legislature - I had lobbying experience with a number of other groups at that point, and we knew how to do it. We knew if we put 300 letters a day on their desks that we'd get them to vote for us, and eventually we did. It was a difficult session. As I reflect, actually it was 1991 that we had the Payette campaign in the legislature. The chairman of the house resources committee died in the middle of the session; he was our lead supporter, and we almost lost the bill when he died. Wayne Sutton from Midvale. His wife, Gertrude Sutton, took over his seat, and she said that her husband's last words to her on legislative issues were to protect the Payette River, and so she voted with us, and we barely got it out of committee. So that kind of galvanized the opportunity for public involvement in river conservation in the state. Up until we had a State Protected Rivers Program, really all people could do was throw themselves into the Army Corps of Engineers process or attend a Power Council meeting or - there was no public involvement processes for people who wanted to be involved in managing Idaho's water resources. So with that new State Protected Rivers Program, then we were able to launch a series of campaigns over the next six or seven years to have each of those five instant rivers re-qualified for additional protection. We only got two years' of protection in 1989 - '88; excuse me, 1988, we passed the state water planning and protected rivers legislation in '88. Karl Brooks was the state senator from Boise at the time,in 1988 and he helped carry that, along with Senator Laird Noh, and so the actual Payette campaign came three years after that in 1991, when the two years was up. So in 1988 we passed the State Comprehensive Water Planning Act that included the State Protected Rivers Program, and that gave us two years of organizing time to get ready for the Payette campaign in 1991. In 1991 we turned out all these cards and letters and phone calls, and we had, you know, people in public hearings and meetings, and that kicked off, then, a series of river protection events that included the south fork of the Boise, the Henry's Fork of the Snake, the Priest River and the middle Snake River - the mid-Snake region between Auger Falls dam down to Bliss.
C.H.: And what kind of protection did they receive, then?
W.W.: Well, it is bank-to-bank, high water line. The State Water Board controls stream channel alterations below the high water line, and so the State feels that that's its jurisdictional boundaries.
C.H.: What about riparian zones?
W.W.: There's no buffer strip on the State Protected Rivers Program. So you can't build a diversion structure, you can't build a dam, you can't open a sand and gravel operation in the middle of the river, you can't build drop structures or any sort of stuff on the state protected rivers unless it's specifically written into the plan.
C.H.: But you could put a development in along the river, things like that?
W.W.: Right. It doesn't affect private property adjacent to the rivers. So this is Idaho's idea, that they own the riverbeds themselves, but not the land because the land is privately owned or is public - of course, you know, 63 percent of the state of Idaho is federally owned, so the state only owns, what, about six percent of the land in Idaho. Most of the river bottom land is public land, even though there's a tremendous amount - most private ownership in the state is low-lying lands, but there is still a tremendous amount of publicly owned river bottom land in Idaho.
C.H.: Were these campaigns for each one of these rivers?
W.W.: Right. So then Idaho Rivers United was founded in 1990 on the model where we would go into a community and organize public participation around preserving their river, their stretch of river, for inclusion in the state system. Of course we always hope that the state river program will extend itself and be more comprehensive and will include land management issues. It hasn't in Idaho. But we now have over 2,000 miles of streams in Idaho that are state protected, and that means no bulldozers in the rivers, essentially.
C.H.: What about other programs like the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act? That must have included some things in Idaho.
W.W.: Idaho has eight rivers that are listed as federal wild and scenic rivers. They were all done either as instant rivers when the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act first passed or add-on's not that long afterwards. The Salmon River was designated as part of the Frank Church Wilderness Act a wild river. The St. Joe River was set up as a wild and scenic river, largely because of Scott Reed and local activists in Northern Idaho pursuing that. I've forgotten the year now. It would have been '78, something like that. Since then, nothing's happened. We haven't had any further federal designations. There are about 200 rivers in Idaho that are still eligible for study or for inclusion in the wild and scenic river system. The lower Salmon and the Bruneau and the Owyhee and the north fork of the Clearwater, all of those have been recommended for wild and scenic designation by the land management agencies and have languished in Congress for lack of a sponsor from the congressional delegation. Larry Craig was going to designate the lower Salmon as a wild and scenic river for a number of years, and then he chose to kill his own bill and drop the project after objections from the cattlemen's association in the early 90s, because - the rhetoric was - it was going to be impossible for him to get through, and he just - he ended up killing his own bill.
C.H.: Was that a good thing that he did, then?
W.W.: No, I think it was a very disappointing thing that he did. We haven't had a wild and scenic river designated since. That was, in my mind, a turning point when we started seeing all-out war against federal land protection efforts in Idaho.
C.H.: And what initiated that? What was the catalyst or the beginning, do you think, of that war? Was there a turning point somewhere there?
W.W.: I'm not sure there is any one turning point. I think there was a series of decisions made by Senator Craig when Jim McClure left office that helped position Senator Craig as the champion of state's rights and the opponent of federal interventionism. I think that since McClure left office - McClure was, I think, much more of a pragmatist on these things. If a federal bill banning hydro power was needed on the Henry's Fork, he could provide that. He didn't designate the Henry's Fork as a wild and scenic river, but he crafted a hydro power dam ban for the Henry's Fork and for the lower Salmon that are still in place today. So actually, no dams can be built on those rivers, or at least no dams can be authorized by the federal government on those rivers, I should say. So that was, I think, a very practical approach to it. Steve Symms had originally stopped the Owyhee from becoming a wild and scenic river. When the Oregon section of the river was designated, Steve Symms was in the House of Representatives at the time and objected to the Idaho portion of it being included. So the designation stops at the border, and that was purely political. The upper Owyhee I think is far more fabulous than the Oregon section of the Owyhee, but it is not designated because Steve Symms didn't want it designated. The Bruneau, the same way on the Bruneau. We were working towards designation of the Bruneau River in the early 90s with Larry Craig's office. We thought we were going to get somewhere, and we were told very clearly that unless the Owyhee County Cattlemen's Association not only gave the nod to it, but actively lobbied to have it designated, it would not be done. And that was - the message could not have been more clearly given to us from Larry Craig's staff and from Larry Craig himself that we would have no further designations in the state of Idaho when that direction came through.
C.H.: What about your organization's efforts to have a statewide comprehensive plan, either lumping a package of rivers together for designation or some kind of a universal -?
W.W.: We've talked about it. Certainly that was one of the original ideas in forming Idaho Rivers United, was to take the 200 rivers that were eligible for further study and crank through those studies, get those recommendations and get something introduced in Congress. We have done that on the north fork of the Clearwater. Those studies were completed, largely at our urging, and the river was found eligible. There is no point in introducing a bill that doesn't have a congressional sponsor from the state in which you're seeking protection for, and so yeah, I mean I could come up with an omnibus bill tomorrow if I had a congressional sponsor.
C.H.: But do you need a congressional sponsor for getting a state bill that would just be within the state legislature here?
W.W.: Oh, well, that's essentially what we have through our state comprehensive water planning process. We have, you know, 2,000 miles of state designated rivers and a process established through which the remaining rivers will be inventoried, studied, and recommended to the legislature for inclusion through the State Water Board. It may take longer than any of us want, but that process has worked on - again, the north fork Clearwater, we got over 250 miles of it designated as state protected, and the federal study proceeded on a parallel path because of our effort to get the state and the feds to cooperate and plan together for once.
C.H.: Does the state coverage help the possibility of federal coverage or hurt it?
W.W.: Well, in theory the two are complementary, the state protection applying to the river below the high water bed, federal protection applying to the half mile corridor surrounding the river and to the powers of the federal government to authorize hydro power projects. So in theory you could have both, and they would work together. In fact what's happened is that the Idaho legislature has demanded that every time a river is designated as a state protected river the legislature inserts a clause that says, "Therefore we don't want the feds to designate it as a wild and scenic river," thus discouraging the feds, but also giving the congressional delegation further direction to stop any sort of federal designation.
C.H.: Given the whole movement towards states' rights, how do you or your organization feel about state coverage versus federal coverage? Would you prefer seeing federal coverage?
W.W.: I'd prefer to see federal coverage on federal lands. I think that the state protected designation is much more useful on privately owned lands because of the fact that the State does have responsibilities for the water beneath the high water mark, and the feds really can't affect private lands, either. Actually, when you review what the wild and scenic rivers program can do, it can't do much except provide money for easements; if a federal agency wants to buy private land easements they can do that, and through the appropriations process you can get money to do that. The bill that Larry Craig finally ended up introducing on the lower Salmon had language in it that would have prohibited federal condemnation, fee title or even easement condemnation. It would require a willing seller even for easements, and we were willing to support that language because in fact if a person isn't a willing seller, then they go to the congressional delegation and they say, "Don't appropriate the money to buy me out," and the money is not appropriated. That's the way private property rights work out here. You complain to your Senator, and he fixes it. So the feds are very meek. The feds aren't out here, you know, booting people off the land reestablishing riparian habitat. It isn't happening, and it's not going to happen.
C.H.: So how have the various conservation groups, environmental groups in Idaho worked together in these coalitions, and where are the limitations in that coalition?
W.W.: Well, I'm very pleased with the Idaho conservation community in terms of its ability to work together. I think unlike most other states that I'm familiar with, we have this sense of siege, that there's only a few of us working on these things and the last thing we have any time for is arguing amongst ourselves. I think that the leader in that culture has been Pat Ford, who - you know, the rest of us might get a little back-bitey from time to time, but you will never hear Pat Ford say a negative word about anyone within the conservation movement, and I succeeded Pat Ford at Idaho Conservation League in that spirit, and then when Pat worked with Ed and then without Ed Chaney in getting the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition going, that's certainly been the spirit that Pat has brought to this. Pat is very uninterested in people's - the things that we disagree on, and continues to keep everyone focused on what we do agree on. He's done that for the wilderness movement and he's done that for the salmon movement. And yes, we have different groups that come, but - like when I started Idaho Rivers United, we did so with the full knowledge and understanding of the other conservation groups in the state. We had a list of things we were going to work on, and, you know, we passed the list around and we said, "Tell us if you're going to be working on these things or if you'd like us to be the lead on these things." There were just a great number of things on the list where we needed a new group to be the lead. Wild and scenic rivers was one, the state protected river system, the Army Corps of Engineers, irrigation diversions and agricultural allocations of water, those kinds of things, nobody was doing that until Idaho Rivers United formed. So we knew clearly what our turf could be, and we work on FERC issues, we work on agriculture issues and work on federal land management of wild and scenic river corridors. If that's not enough to keep us busy, then we can try to look over the shoulders of some of our sister groups and get involved in some other things, too.
C.H.: So the issues are pretty well distributed among the various groups, then?
W.W.: We have had very little of the turf wars that I think we've seen in other states because it's a huge state, and we only have a million people, and of those - I mean, total conservation membership is probably around 6,000 people, and that probably includes the Nature Conservancy folks that aren't active in a policy arena. So 6,000 people, you know - in Seattle you can get those into one basketball game.
C.H.: What about the differences that, you know, you might have with sports fishing groups and things like that?
W.W.: Well, there certainly are some differences. The primary ones have been around how much emphasis to put on habitat protection and how much to put on the proportional mortality factors of salmon in this state, being the Army Corps and BPA, and that's sort of a balancing act. You can't just focus exclusively on one or the other. There are groups that do nothing but habitat, and then there are groups like Idaho Salmon and Steelhead Unlimited that does nothing but passage and to a limited extent hatcheries and supplementation. Idaho Rivers United has tried to split the difference because we do work on land issues, not to the extent that we work on water issues, but they are hard to disconnect. And so our differences in terms of salmon restoration have been kept to a real minimum - the odd press release, and I've been very pleased that when sometimes we get out on something that the other groups aren't going to support, we'll have a board member from one group come to a meeting and say, "Hey, when you do this, this is the press release we're going to issue," and talk that over and say, "Okay, we can live with that," or not.
C.H.: So a lot of cooperation, then?
W.W.: Well, the big thing that's been hard in the last couple years is this business of dam removal. You know, Idaho Rivers United - you know, we really have to thank Reed Burkholder for continuing to pursue this issue with us. Reed Burkholder, if you haven't heard his name before, is an independent activist here in Boise who's a piano teacher. He started as a Sierra Club member. Sierra Club wasn't taking a dam removal position fast enough for him. He started going to the other groups and saying, you know, "You just have to come out in support of dam removal." About three years ago he came to my board of directors and made his pitch, and we were very nervous that we had public involvement on a number of things that were leading towards possible good outcomes, through the Power Council Fish and Wildlife Program, and we didn't want to be taking two messages to the public. We wanted to support one firm message to the public, that the Power Council's Fish and Wildlife Program and seasonal draw-downs were the way to go - not because we actually thought seasonal draw-downs were the best for fish, but because we thought that politically that's the best we could ever hope for. The situation changed in 1994 when the Power Council changed. The Power Council finally adopted a good Fish and Wildlife Program that was a very good plan you know, with the leadership of the Idaho delegation that had been appointed by Cecil Andrus, it looked very much like what we had been advocating. Of course in January when the new administration came in, those Power Council members were fired.
[End of Tape 1, Side 2]
Tape 2, Side 1
8 May 1998
C.H.: This is an interview with Wendy Wilson at the Idaho Rivers United office in Boise, Idaho. The interviewer for the Oregon Historical Society is Clark Hansen, the date is 5-6-98, and this is Tape 2, Side 1. So you were talking about the Northwest Power Planning Council. Why were all those people fired - or released or - was that in 1995?
W.W.: Well, 1994 was the election year. In 1994 we were very, very depressed about what was going on with the Power Council. Ed Chaney had a suit pending with them for failure to listen to the fisheries agencies and tribes as required under the Power Act. The Fish and Wildlife plan was bad. I remember thinking it was the darkest hour when we got word that in fact the court had ruled in Ed's favor and that they had to throw out the Fish and Wildlife plan and have more public hearings. So Charles Ray on my staff at Idaho Rivers United went to the Power Council meeting and proposed what we called Option 5, which was an immediate draw-down, emergency draw-down option, and we then had a campaign across the region through Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition to turn people out at the hearings in the fall of 1994, and we had rallies and - we just did a full court press to get the Power Council's public hearing record to favor taking some immediate steps to save salmon. Jay Webb was a Power Council appointee for Cecil Andrus. Jay became concerned that Andrus was not going to be governor anymore, that he as a long-time Republican would be branded with this act of tyranny against the region - I shouldn't put words in Jay's mouth, but essentially that he was uncomfortable taking Andrus' final words to the Power Council and step down. Andy Brunell, who was Andrus' natural resources aide, became the Power Council representative for a very short period of time to complete Jay's term and to complete the amendments to the Fish and Wildlife Program that were required by the court case, and hear the word of the people - I can't remember, we had 150, 200 people testify from Idaho, all in favor of drastic measures in the fish and wildlife program for emergency draw-down of the four lower Snake River dams.
C.H.: What kind of opposition was there?
W.W.: None in the public hearing, except Bruce Loveland and just a couple of paid spokes people.
C.H.: Who is Bruce Loveland?
W.W.: Columbia River Alliance director. I don't remember the exact numbers, but it was like 150 to one. I mean, it was very - we just knocked them dead in the public hearings, and the fish and wildlife agencies and the tribes were unified in their comments, and for once the fish and wildlife plan at the Power Council started to look like it had some good stuff in it. That established the, quote, presumptive path towards draw-down, that the Power Council approved, then, that they were on a presumptive path towards draw-down unless somebody between then and 1999 could show them a better way. I can't remember, maybe it was even 1998, but ...
C.H.: But this is an emergency draw-down, right? It was supposed to happen right away?
W.W.: Yeah. It was supposed to - John Day to a minimum operating pool and you know, extend the ladders at the lower Snake, and there was all kinds of good stuff in that plan that Andy Brunell ended up shepherding through, and of course, since Cecil Andrus wasn't running that year and Phil Batt did beat Larry Echohawk in the governor's race, Phil Batt -- a new brush swept clean, and Andy lost the seat and Bob Saxrick was the other Power Council member from Idaho at the time. Andy and Bob were gone. They were replaced with Todd Maddock and Mike Field. Mike Field was unfamiliar with the court case that started this whole new negotiation -- you know, new amendments to the Fish and Wildlife Program at that time, when he first came on, and he announced that they just weren't going to implement the new plan. At his confirmation meeting at the Senate, which I attended, he on cross-examination was unfamiliar with the court case that put the Power Council in that position and said that he was there to represent the region, not just Idaho, and that the region was not ready for major steps in changing operations of the lower Snake River dams.
C.H.: And why was that? What testimony was he giving saying that they weren't ready?
W.W.: This is at his confirmation hearing.
C.H.: And the region wasn't ready for what reason? What needed to be done? There had been these studies done and these plans drawn up - was there ...
W.W.: Well, I think his answer was highly unsatisfactory to me, so I can't say exactly what he said, but ...
C.H.: But did he give a reason why they weren't ready?
W.W.: He felt then that it hadn't been proved that the dams were the problem, and I think that he might feel differently now, but at the time both he and Todd Maddock were unified in their -- and Todd, of course, coming straight out of Potlatch, he'd been the lobbyist for Potlatch at the legislature for a number of years, he and Todd just simply said that they'd be putting the Fish and Wildlife Program out for amendment again, and they weren't going to implement it.
C.H.: But he was just one member on the Council ...
W.W.: Well, but that changed - I mean, the Council can only act on the vote of six members, and so Montana was never in on this deal to begin with, and the six-member vote that we got in - I believe it was November of '94 - perhaps it was October, November of '94 - was the only six-person vote we had ever gotten for changes in the operations of the Snake and Columbia system for fish out of the Power Council. They had been in a four-four deadlock for years. You know, different combinations of Council members have been deadlocked in different ways. But for one brief moment, the Council had aligned on what they wanted to do, and that was wiped out a month later with new appointments.
C.H.: So where did that put you, back at square one?
W.W.: Well, we've essentially since then not participated in the Power Council. The Fish and Wildlife Program has not been implemented. To the extent that we would seek a legal venue for challenging that, I suppose we could, but that would just encourage them to get the six votes they need to not implement it and change it again, and so it's just - you write a plan, you put it on the shelf; you write another plan, you put it on the shelf. And it's not a game that my volunteers have any stomach for anymore, and I can't turn out anybody to even appear before the Power Council very often.
C.H.: So what did that leave you with options and strategies for? Where did you turn, then, from that point?
W.W.: Well, since then we've been trying to deal directly with the National Marine Fishery Service and the Army Corps. The biological opinion came out in March of 1995 on the hydro power system, which was another dark day for salmon because the NMFS biological opinion on the hydro power system gave them the legal authority through the incidental take permit to kill all the fish. It said up to 100 percent of certain stocks of fish, and up to 86 percent of others, could be incidentally killed in the operation of the hydro power system, including the sockeye, which at that point were numbering in the single digits. You know, someone said 86 percent of one fish is a fillet.
C.H.: So how did they arrive at this conclusion?
W.W.: Well, as defendant, judge and jury, the federal government determined that they were not guilty of killing the fish, and if they were, it was okay to do it.
C.H.: But there was the Endangered Species Act ...
W.W.: Well, that's in compliance. We have taken this to court, and we have lost. The federal government built the dams. The federal government operates the dams. The federal government consults with itself on continuing operations and in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and gave itself a clean bill of health. Originally, Idaho had challenged the fact that it was a, quote, no-jeopardy opinion, the 1994 biological opinion was a, quote, "no jeopardy opinion," and Idaho won on that. Will Whelan, who had been with the Idaho Conservation League but was by that time in the Attorney General's Office, had done some great legal work in Idaho, was the lead plaintiff in that case. The following year they came back and NMFS said, "Okay, it's a jeopardy opinion. You're right. The dams do jeopardize the continued existence of the salmon. However, the reasonable and prudent alternatives to operating the dams is to get some flow augmentation water out of Idaho and to barge as many of the suckers as we can vacuum out of the river, and even if we kill 86 to 100 percent of them in the process, that would be reasonable and prudent." So take that to the judge, and Judge Marsh writes that it appears to him that we need a major overhaul of the system and it's only being tinkered with, but the limits of judicial review being as they are, he can't do anything. So that's the most powerful environmental law in America today, the Endangered Species Act.
C.H.: Now, in your opinion is this a weakness in Judge Marsh's review of this or ...
W.W.: No. It's separation of powers. It's that he's only a judge. He is not the administration.
C.H.: But look what they've done with the spotted owl. I mean, there have been judges that have ...
W.W.: An injunction, yeah. Giving an injunction helps.
C.H.: Not only an injunction, but a plan: "You're going to do this, you're going to do this and this." Why can't they do that for the fish?
W.W.: Well, I think that if Judge Marsh was predisposed to shut down the Columbia River that he could have done that, and certainly we in our heart of hearts hoped that he would. Our case on the biological opinion, the full case, is still pending, and maybe someday there will be more judicial backbone to take some of these steps. But it wasn't unexpected that he ruled against us at the preliminary injunction - the ruling for a preliminary injunction he ruled against us. The full case is still pending.
C.H.: So that was in what year?
W.W.: That was just a year ago that we lost that case.
C.H.: So where does that leave you now? What have you been working on since then?
W.W.: Well, the litigation strategy is always, you know, forming as opportunities arise. You know, being right isn't enough to win in court, and even being legally right isn't enough to win in court because these complicated environmental laws are essentially procedural, and the National Environmental Policy Act, and even the Endangered Species Act, never says "and you have to do the right thing by the environment." All it says is, "You've got to look at reasonable and prudent alternatives," or "You have to look at the full range of alternatives," or all these procedural issues. So our legal hooks are less than many people think, and much of our legal strategy is just to pressure the agencies to keep them on their toes, and to make sure that the public is aware of what's going on. I would say our strategy is not to prevail in court but to prevail in the court of public opinion and to shame people into doing the right thing in the long run. I know I sound like Ed Chaney when I say that, because I don't think that humiliation and shame is a great motivator, but the agencies in the long run as institutions have to respond to public pressure, and if people know what's going on in these little dark corners of political side deals and the failure of the laws to actually protect the environment, then in the long run those agencies will change. But it's a cultural change at the agencies that has to go on, and I think that the way that salmon and steelhead are going to be saved in the Columbia is through the agencies themselves meeting the challenges that they are given. The National Marine Fishery Service does not know today that they are in charge of telling BPA what to do to save the fish. They think that they are a small cog off somewhere that, you know, is in charge of hand-wringing, and they repeatedly, when we deal with the people behind the scenes at National Marine Fishery Service, have the impression that they cannot rock the boat, that the federal family demands that they be team players with BPA and the Army Corps.
C.H.: Even the Bonneville Power Administration has said that, first of all, these things or a lot of these things regarding the fish were not mandated ...
W.W.: Oh, yeah. They're just doing it out of the goodness of their heart.
C.H.: ... and that they have never been given emergency powers to be able to make changes in the dams.
W.W.: Oh, the poor things. They've been given the powers to build them, they've been given the powers to evacuate all the fish out of the system, and they aren't given the powers to turn the switch off. The Army Corps is even worse. The Army Corps will tell you, of course, that the Power Act is not obligatory to them, that they don't have to even do what the Power Council says, should the Power Council ever decide what to tell them to do, and that the Endangered Species Act stuff that BPA has to live by is also advisory to the Corps. So you know, it's just fascinating, their lack of authority, and here they have this system that's built to the tune of two billion dollars' worth of federal tax dollars, and federal infrastructure that they just can't possibly control anymore.
C.H.: A couple things. First of all, as far as the BPA is concerned - now, these various things that they're doing or say that they're doing in terms of - you know, aside from the barging and the fish hatcheries, and they've done a little bit of draw-down and stuff, there have been suggestions to make changes to the turbines and to make changes to fish ladders and to make changes with the screens and things like that. Are these all important steps in this?
W.W.: No, no. It's all a complete charade. They have done nothing. They have done nothing except spend more tax dollars.
C.H.: Would you think doing these things would be good?
W.W.: I would suggest that very little of what they've done with the transportation system, with the screening, with the flow augmentation, with improved barging techniques, trucking, with the iron curtain, with - I would argue very little of it has actually helped any fish. You know, I guess I have to just - you look at the chart of how many fish come back, and it's on our wall out here. That to us is the pudding, and the proof is in the pudding, is where are the fish? It's not working. At this point, if we are speaking in the present tense, Army Corps has shown us $1.6 billion worth of future capital costs to improve the fish passage facilities in the lower Snake. Just plain capital expenses to put in more bells and whistles and gizmos and suction cups for the fish to have to thrash their way through, totaling $1.6 billion. That's more than the dams cost to begin with, and certainly far more than they're worth in today's dollars.
C.H.: Which dams are you referring to?
W.W.: The four lower Snake River dams, by themselves. $1.6 billion over the next five years that the Army Corps could very well be allocated by Congress. Now, Congress, of course, has to make that call. But the alternative to dam removal is gold-plating the dams with all this stuff that equally kills fish but is extremely expensive and will make everyone feel like they're doing their very level best. The comparisons I could make are not worth historical reference, but you know, as Ed Chaney has said, we've tried everything but Fed-Ex-ing the fish to the ocean, and Fed-Ex at this point would be about as successful. The controversy around dam removal is a major milestone in how we look at the salmon issues in the Columbia, and for once we're finally - because of the insistence of Reed Burkholder and other individuals, and because the Power Council finally became such a hopeless waste of time, we became engaged in the Army Corps process through the system configuration study. Okay, they came to the hearing, we said we wanted to have them consider dam removal, and they said yes. [Interruption]
C.H.: So do you feel that you've had any successes?
W.W.: Oh, yeah. The proof is in the pudding. Look at how many fish we're getting back. [laughs] I think that the dams are going to come out on the lower Snake River. I think that they are because of private members of the public at large have been successfully bringing the issue of dam removal to the forefront. I think that the Corps now realizes that they would have to spend more defending these dams than they could possibly justify in terms of the dams themselves, and that we are going to see, as Michelle DeHart put it years ago, "the systematic deconstruction of the hydro power system on the Columbia River."
C.H.: The whole thing?
W.W.: I don't know how far it will go. I don't believe it need go the whole way. I think that we are now learning to ask for what we really need, and that the crucial mistake that was made early in the salmon campaign by Cecil Andrus, as to what was politically feasible and that seasonal draw-downs was as far as you could reasonably ask them to go, this was a big mistake, and that it took us years to recover from that because of the fact that there is no biology to suggest that that would be adequate and there is no economic reason to think that it would be worth doing. Okay, so what have we accomplished? I think the dams are going to come out. I think they're going to come out because of the economics of the dams and because of the Endangered Species Act. Really in the long run the federal government isn't going to go to the “God squad” and decide to kill the salmon. When I first met with Will Stelle, the National Marine Fishery Service regional director, and he was new in the region, I said, "How are you going to challenge the industrial users of the river when it comes to draw-downs in the Snake?" And he said, "If it comes to that, I'll send it to the God squad." I don't think that, at least under a Democratic administration, that they can pull the other God squad that would agree to kill the Columbia-Snake River salmon. If they do, then I guess cynicism will rule. But I think the Endangered Species Act clearly says that they have to be doing something and that, you know, our endless litigation, the tribal litigation against the agencies, and the economic pressures are such that in the long run some of those dams are going to go.
C.H.: How about the strategy of the tribal litigations? Some people think that that's really the route because of the treaty obligations and whatnot that there will be a legal obligation to supply, to make sure that the Indians have a certain amount of fish, not just the allocation but be able to supply a larger number of fish somehow?
W.W.: If the tribes thought they had the votes in the Supreme Court, I'm sure they would have filed that litigation already. I think that they are right to be cautious with the U.S. Supreme Court the way it is right now. They don't want to lose a hundred-year-old treaty right to some duffus Supreme Court decision. I fully believe in the validity of that claim, but I just don't know with the U.S. Supreme Court the way it is right now that they should aggressively pursue that. That's their call, and I'm sure that when the time is right they'll make that claim. That could happen. Even if that did happen, it would be kind of like the Mono Lake case in California, where 20 years later they're still figuring out how to do it, and that is probably going to be the case with anything that comes from the '99 decision. But right now we're working towards the '99 decision in which NMFS and the Army Corps decides what they're going to recommend to Congress on how many dams should come out, if the dams should come out, or whether they're just going to permanently evacuate the fish from the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
C.H.: Who is this decision being made by?
W.W.: Technically National Marine Fishery Service has agreed to do it. It's part of the court requirements in the Idaho v. NMFS case that they provide the court with what they're going to do. But there's no reason to think it won't slip and slide and disappear, just like, you know, the Power Council's Fish and Wildlife Program, or you know, the biological opinion that we waited for - I mean, every year we're waiting desperately for the key decision that's going to for once and for all save the fish. But public pressure is on now and the deregulation of the electric industry is such that the need for certainty at BPA is higher than it's ever been, and it could be that there's a good constellation here between deregulation and competitive pressures on BPA and the Endangered Species Act pressures. It could be that in 1999 they actually decide that they want to recommend dam removal of the four lower Snake dams. The question is John Day, and how far they're going to go with John Day. John Day - Slade Gorton has stopped consideration and study of John Day, and so that is a problem, how much will they be willing to go out and say they can do without also including John Day. I think if we had John Day to spillway crest and the four lower Snake River dams removed, that biological uncertainty would be much less, and we could get our fish back. Now everybody's blaming El Niño, and oh, “well, maybe salmon aren't important after all.” The evidence clearly does not show that. The evidence clearly shows that Snake River stocks have been selected for decimation at a much higher rate than down river Columbian stocks, and it's because of the number of dams.
[End of Tape 2, Side 1]
Tape 2, Side 2
8 May 1998
C.H.: This is an interview with Wendy Wilson. This is Tape 2, Side 2. So you were talking about other factors like drawing down the John Day, how far to do that. First of all, a lot of people look at the removal of dams as being a rather radical concept, if they haven't been made aware of all the things leading up to this, and why can't the dams just be modified to have proper spillways and fish ladders, why we'd have to tear down the dam to achieve this end. What has led to your conclusion that that's not going to work?
W.W.: Well, I look at, you know, Trojan, I look at the closing of Detroit auto plants. Industrial structures come and go, and in this culture that is an economic decision, primarily. The dams themselves, when you consider the economic impacts of the fact that they kill fish, don't make any money for society. So it will be an economic decision, and the way it will be - we're going to just have to keep the price in mind, and the price of saving salmon with the dams in place, if it's even possible, is astronomical. Last week we released a report that says that the net benefit of the dams is so low that removing them would benefit society to the extent of $87 million a year, plus you get the fish back. So already the dams are running at a net cost to society through subsidies that are provided to the industries that use them and the cost of maintaining the structures themselves. And now, when you're looking at $1.6 billion to make them, quote, “more fish friendly,” it's just time to decommission. And just like Trojan was closed without a huge amount of public dislocation, I think we can simply close a few industrial structures. Dams, however, have this religious sense to them that once we've built them that the gods look favorably on them and they cannot be unbuilt. Well, eventually those dams are coming down, either through the rivers taking them down in the passage of time, or people taking them down. They're not gods, they're only concrete. So to me I guess I don't see what's so radical about supporting the retirement of an industrial structure. Certainly the biology of how you do that is not entirely with us yet because we don't have the experience of knowing what happens when you unplug the Snake: where does the sediment go, and how fast can we reestablish spawning beds in the main stem - we just don't have those kind of studies done. It better be done in the United States of America - and it probably needs to be done on the lower Snake first - because we're building the world with these things, you know, all around the globe, and kind of like nuclear power plants, there's no decommissioning plan. And if we don't have one in this country, then when we export this to China and the Mekong Delta - we'd better have a plan for how you decommission these things.
C.H.: But there are a lot of people that would say that in an age where we need more and more power, that we're looking for environmentally friendly power sources, environmentally friendly being not nuclear, where you're having to deal with waste, not something that's contributing to air pollution, like coal-fired plants and are depleting non-renewable resources like oil and gas, that actually hydro power is one of the cleaner sources of energy and that we have to reconcile ourselves with where we look for our energy, that we can't turn to solar right now and some of these other things as an overall power source.
W.W.: Well, I disagree. I think that hydro power has huge external costs, and the loss of salmon and steelhead is obviously one of them. But more importantly, when you look at the whole ecology of the region, salmon and steelhead are the way that our high mountain rivers are fertilized. We have granitic soils in Idaho. We have a huge Idaho wilderness that is waiting for the fish to come back, is dying for the nutrients that those fish represent, that fertilize the resident fisheries in those wilderness areas that then feed the bear, that feed the osprey and the eagles, and without the fish, we lose the core of the ecosystem; that is, the wilderness in the Columbia. So this is not a small price. The Columbia River once held the largest salmon runs in the world, and if we write those off here, then we're marginalizing all salmon species throughout the region. It's unclear whether or not we can sustain a fishery in the Northern Pacific without the Columbia stocks, in the long run. So I don't think we have much choice. I think that we simply can't look the other way and say, "Oh, well, so much for those fish," because we'll be throwing away the plug to the bathtub that holds our ecosystem together here, and we're going to lose the estuary systems, the high mountain lakes and river systems, without that ecological mainstay that those fish represent. So yes, it's a big problem. Global warming is a significant problem. But we're going to have global warming at this point, and we're either going to have global warming with salmon in the Columbia, or we're going to have global warming without salmon in the Columbia. These dams aren't going to make a hill of difference in the global warming debate. Obviously the energy requirements that these dams represent, which is debatable how much they actually produce and how much of that is firm and how much of it you really want to count, but it's less than the closure of the Trojan plant, and the region didn't blink when that happened. The real concern on energy is how our society learns to conserve the resources that we have. Not all dams have to come out, but not all dams have to stay, either, and there's got to be a way that we can keep the ones that are not as harmful and get rid of some of the ones that we really can't live with.
C.H.: So how do you look at the main stem Columbia dams, then?
W.W.: Well, it's not entirely my call, and I like to tell my friends in the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition that my position on any given matter doesn't really matter until we have a regional consensus about what everybody thinks. But I think that in terms of Columbia River stocks, the Hanford Reach is a good example of how fish can survive with four dams between them and the ocean. Hanford Reach fish are not without problems, but they are still a harvestable self-sustaining population, and they go through four dams. Idaho fish go through eight dams, and that's too many. I think John Day, there's a lot of concern about John Day because it's so huge and because it affects so many different runs and because it is - you know, a lot of main stem habitat could be reconstructed there. The problem with John Day is that it's a keystone to the whole Northwest energy grid, so there's probably some long-term engineering steps there that haven't been thought through all the way. Lower Snake is a no-brainer, from our perspective, and I think in 1999 Army Corps will come to that conclusion, as well, through their own environmental studies. It's going to be tough, but I think with enough public scrutiny they'll have to admit that the dams were never going to pay for themselves, they're not paying for themselves, and sinking $1.6 billion into improving them isn't going to help.
C.H.: When you're talking about drawing down the John Day dam, you're talking about a permanent draw-down, aren't you?
W.W.: Well, I think that we have fought through the issue of leaving the mud flats and bathtub ring to the point where permanent draw-down is much more reasonable for local communities to support and probably makes more biological sense because then you do have a chance to reestablish the actual main stem habitat itself. Rivers aren't just plumbing to convey water from one point to the next. It's not like you had some one place where there's all the spawning areas and then you have the ocean and the big pipe runs between them. The rivers are actually part of the life cycle of the fish, and there are spawning beds along the way for certain stocks, and there's feeding areas along the way that need to be restored. So I think that a permanent draw-down is the one that makes the most biological sense. This is a struggle between the technocrats and the biologists, and the biologists are very weak, and the technocrats are very strong, and what's going to tip the balance is public opinion. Politicians aren't going to just do the right thing because these issues are much bigger than any individual politician and his or her candidacy is not going to last long enough to show the righteousness of their position.
C.H.: But, you know, the technocrats are in there for good, and they have this sort of family type of thing where there's a smooth transition from one technocrat to the next. It's not like the technocrats are making all these changes that politicians would be making. Politicians are coming and going, administrations are coming and going and ...
W.W.: If we can keep them whole, if BPA can survive without four dams, and if the Army Corps has plenty to do taking down dams, then who's to complain? The technocrats can be made happy in this, but they have to change their game plan, and they have to let go of the perspective they've had for years, which is, "Everything's perfect, trust us - and appropriate us lots of money."
C.H.: But your imagery of pulling the plug in the bathtub is exactly what the users of that water are saying that taking the dams out would do, that the irrigators who are completely dependent on water from the river for their livelihood, and barging ...
W.W.: Well, but that - dare I debate these issues right now - because it's just fear-mongering. I mean, there are 13 farms that pull water out of the Ice Harbor pool. The lower Snake is not an irrigation complex. The pool can be lowered, and those farms can still get their water if they wish to. There is no storage water in those dams. The barge traffic would stop before Lewiston. They could still get to Pasco, but then they would - so we would have the height of navigation from the ocean would be Pasco instead of Lewiston. Is this something that the public cares about really, how far the barges can go upstream? No, we'd have ...
C.H.: But if they had a draw-down at the John Day, like they're talking about, will the barges be able to get to the ...
W.W.: Well, at spillway crest they can engineer it to get to Pasco. You know, the barge system is - Tidewater Barge has 75 percent of all the barge traffic that goes through there. It's in direct competition with the railroad, which runs along the same length of distance. The barging issue, to me, is a red herring. This is inconvenient, perhaps, to change infrastructure, but in terms of the hundreds of millions of dollars we're spending a year on salmon restoration to make the tens of million dollars worth of adjustments to the barging system that we would need to make is hardly a show-stopper. The system is a hydro power system. The dams are there to produce juice for BPA, and if BPA can be kept whole, and their latest energy projections show that with or without the dams their financial future is pegged to the regional cost of energy, rather than their actual production in the lower Snake, the rate impacts will be negligible, according to BPA. So if the rate impacts are negligible, we can keep the shippers whole through minor reallocations of federal funding to change the way the transport of commodities goes through the Columbia River Basin, then what's the hang-up? These things are do-able. Of course, extinction is do-able, too, and extinction is the course we're on right now, but it's human nature to be optimistic, and we have to be optimistic that we can solve this problem. But there is no substantive reason why the dams can't be taken out and the world continue as an economic benefit to everyone. The upstream irrigators have the most to benefit from dam removal because the upstream irrigation dams throughout Idaho are being used right now to help augment flows through the lower Snake to flush fish into the barges faster and to unnaturally elevate flow levels in the lower Snake to compensate for the existence of those four lower Snake River dams. Lower Snake River dams are run-of-the-river structures. They're there in a steady state. The dams up here, they ramp them up and down according to the irrigation needs. All we're asking, really, is that instead of using these dams to flush those dams that you eliminate the problem on the lower Snake, and irrigators up here will have more certainty of water for their irrigation needs.
C.H.: And the reason why they have more certainty without the dams ...
W.W.: Is because they wouldn't have to augment flows and flush water down through the system.
C.H.: But still, isn't there more control over what water they have in the reservoir behind a ...
W.W.: See, this is the misunderstanding about the lower Snake River dams. These aren't irrigation dams. These are not storage dams. They are just big hunks of concrete with big wads of water behind them that are used to float barges and turn turbines. They are not flood control dams. There is no flood control responsibility at those dams. Portland will not be flooded without these dams.
C.H.: They don't act that way in Lewiston...
W.W.: They do not ramp them up and down. They leave them at a steady level. They say, "Well, we moved it six feet last year for salmon." Well, that makes essentially no difference in either the velocity of the water through the dams or - it makes no difference to anyone. That six feet worth of difference is not even detectable when you look at its impacts to fish or to anything else. So what we're saying is that the system right now, as constructed by the Army Corps, could be reconstructed, getting similar benefits out of other dams and get rid of constraints on the system that the Corps has to meet because of their existence, and you actually can produce power at other sites that wouldn't have produced it. There's dams up here in this system that don't even have turbines, and we're draining those reservoirs to flush water through the lower Snake. There's a lot of room to change the system, including dam removal.
C.H.: So some people are also talking about stopping the fish hatcheries and stopping the barging immediately. Are those good ideas?
W.W.: Well, barging needs to go. Barging isn't really helping anything. Barging is as good as doing nothing, but it's an extremely expensive way of doing nothing, and it makes the Corps feel like they're doing something.
C.H.: But the problem won't get any worse if they stop barging right now?
W.W.: No. They could stop barging tomorrow, and it is my contention the fish would be no worse off. So now we have what we call the "spread the risk policy," where some people think that barging would help them this year, and some people think barging would not help them this year, so we do a little bit of both, and that's spreading the risk between arsenic and cyanide as your daily vitamins. It is an unusual study, but that's essentially what we're doing is we're saying, "Well, you know, if we give them all arsenic, they're sure to die; if we give them all cyanide, they're sure to die. So let's give them a little of both."
C.H.: What about the hatcheries?
W.W.: Well, hatcheries, again, have been a fig leaf that have been applied to the problem of over-development of the energy resource in the Basin. Hatcheries have failed to work in large part because they require a wild gene pool to draw on and in other part because it's as easy to kill hatchery fish in the dam as it is wild fish. So my particular organization is not against hatcheries per se. We think that hatcheries are part of a full program of restoring salmon and steelhead. We're not supplementation advocates in the wilderness areas where there has been no supplementation in the past because we want to preserve the genetic stocks that are there. But to blame hatcheries for this problem, at least in Idaho, is a sideshow, and we've tried to avoid that. Hatcheries here - last year we produced nine million smolts in our hatcheries, and we flushed them down river and killed 86 percent of them grinding them up through the first dams, you know. What a program!
C.H.: How does your organization make decisions? How do you arrive at the issues that you're supporting?
W.W.: It's what the grassroots want to do, what our members, our board members, who are volunteers, feel is the right thing to do. We have a board of directors that represents people from throughout the state, and they hire me, and I hire the staff. And the board policy on salmon from the beginning has to be: support, self-supporting wild runs of fish. We want to be able [word missing?] fish for them. Hatcheries are useful. Right now, we wouldn't be able - I took my son fishing this year, and we wouldn't have been able to do that - salmon fishing in the Little Salmon River - without the hatchery program. And even with the hatchery program we're not going to be able to do that now for a number of years, if at all. But our board is people who love rivers. Our board is made up of people who either live by a river or grew up fishing, grew up running rivers, and they're all people that have lived in Idaho for a very long time. Our membership, we found, has lived in Idaho for on average more than 25 years. Everyone says, "Oh, it's all the new people coming to Idaho that are all such conservationists." Huh-uh! It's people who have lived here a long time who can't stand to see what's happening to their rivers. Our board makes decisions by talking with the state agencies and the tribal representatives and getting the best information we can and trying to interpret to the public what's really going on. If you just read the headlines, you'd never know what's going on with salmon. It's just like endless sports coverage or something and there is no season end.
C.H.: So how should the costs be borne in accomplishing these goals?
W.W.: How should the costs be borne in accomplishing these goals?
C.H.: Yeah. You know, tearing down the dams, making the modifications ...
W.W.: Well, whose dams are they?
C.H.: Well, they're federally run.
W.W.: Who makes the money?
C.H.: Well, Bonneville makes the money, but they're a federal agency, and the power companies make the money.
W.W.: And the ratepayers get some benefit.
C.H.: Should it be the ratepayers, then?
W.W.: If the dams are going to stay, then the beneficiaries of the dams should pay. If the dams are going to go, then the past beneficiaries of the dams need to pay. You can say, "Oh, well, everybody enjoys salmon, and salmon are a public resource," it is the tragedy of the commons; if the salmon go, then we all lose, if we incur costs saving salmon, then shouldn't everyone pay? That argument can be made. It's not going to be successfully waged in Congress. The region has to pay. No one in Congress wants to hear that the poor Northwest, with the cheapest power rates of anyone in the world, needs a federal bailout to fix their dams. That isn't going to fly. We're going to have to pay for it right here in the region. It's going to come out of ratepayers, it's going to come out of the - the up-front costs are going to come out of the U.S. Treasury, but we'll be saving money by doing it.
C.H.: Should public subsidies to various groups be considered in terms of where the costs are allocated?
W.W.: Well, it's an interesting argument. You know, we already are paying more to kill the fish than we would pay to save them, so if we subsidize people to not kill the fish, then maybe we'll be doing ourselves a favor.
C.H.: Well, right now we're subsidizing people to kill the fish.
W.W.: To kill the fish, yeah.
C.H.: So should those subsidies be dropped? Should they be raised, lowered - what should happen to the subsidies that are going to the irrigators, to the power users, the large power users, and things like that?
W.W.: Well, if I was in Congress, I would try to get the best deal for my constituents that I could, and that's what they're going to do, and a deal will be struck in Congress. And what should happen, which is beneficiaries of the system pay for modifications to the system, is probably not what's going to happen. What's going to happen is those beneficiaries that are well connected politically are going to cover themselves with taxpayer money. And it will depend on what kind of repayment schedule the BPA can work out with the Treasury as to whether the taxpayers will be fully reimbursed. We had a big change when Tom Foley left. Nothing was going to happen until Tom Foley left, and now he's gone, and that breaks through some Congressional deadlocks that we had. Hatfield's gone, too. Hatfield and Foley pretty much had the region well covered, and the region didn't have to pay its full costs.
C.H.: So do you feel optimistic in the long run?
W.W.: Well, I think I feel very scared that we're the environmentalists on duty right now, and we have an obligation to make this work. And you know, somebody didn't shoot the last buffalo, and I hope somebody doesn't kill the last salmon. So it's our duty to make this work, and it's very difficult trying to take a billion dollars worth of federal infrastructure out; it's something that hasn't been done very often. But I'm very optimistic that the fish are terribly persistent, they're very fertile, thousands of eggs per female. If we give them half a chance, they will come back, and it's just a matter of getting the people out of the way. I have to say there's been a big - I think I've seen a change in the environmental movement with the influx of more female leadership into fisheries issues in the Northwest. It used to be, you know, a bunch of guys fighting over who got to fish for the last fish. A lot of them have grown up and gotten over that, and with the addition of some women into the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition family, we have, I think, had a much more optimistic attitude about getting over our differences and working on the things that we can work on. I mentioned Pat Ford before. I would also mention Lori Bodi and Karen Garrison as people that have been very instrumental in bringing the conservation community together and saying, "Okay, you know, let's quit fighting over whose hatcheries are killing whose fishing opportunities."
C.H.: Is there anything else that you'd like to add?
W.W.: Well, I think that never underestimating the power of a few individuals to do the right thing is very important in the case of the Columbia because the Columbia isn't dead, the Columbia and the Snake River can come back.
[End of Tape 2, Side 2 and interview]