The editorial board of the Idaho Statesman, then a relatively conservative body, shocked the Pacific Northwest 20 years ago when it called for breaching four dams on the Snake River to save Idaho’s endangered salmon and steelhead.
In 1997, the only people who had taken a serious public stand on removing the dams were Reed Burkholder, a Boise piano teacher and renewable energy activist, and Frank Young, a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Statesman’s six-member editorial board — headed by Publisher Pam Meals and Editor John Costa — made a bold statement in an unprecedented three-day series of editorials, graphics and background beginning that July 20.
In his own separate column that ran with the series, Costa summed up the case. In short: A natural river saves salmon and money.
“We are aware that there are folks who passionately believe that the dams should stay,” he wrote. “But we do not believe that their case can be made against the broader interests of all in Idaho and the Northwest.”
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Costa had asked me to research all of the issues surrounding the dams after the editorial board met with Mike Crapo, now a U.S. senator, then representing Idaho in the U.S. House. Crapo at that time supported lowering reservoir levels seasonally to improve salmon migration. But he worried a federal judge would order Idaho farmers to give up the water in reservoirs like Lucky Peak, American Falls and Palisades to aid migration.
He did not support dam breaching — but he got Costa and Editorial Page Editor Alan Bauer thinking. Could the Idaho Statesman make a conservative case that breaching those dams is the best decision for this state? Costa gave me a month to talk to people on all sides of the issue and lay out both sides’ best arguments.
I brought in executives from the Bonneville Power Administration (the federal agency that markets power from the dams) and Lewiston Port officials to talk directly to editorial writer Susan Whaley, now retired and living here in Boise. We talked to scientists from both sides of the debate, and to economists.
When I was done I wrote a long memo that laid out both sides’ arguments, the science, the history, the economics, everything but the politics.
Once the board made its choice, Whaley went about writing the three-part series that laid out what the board found to be the cheapest option:
▪ Put a regional governance board composed of state, tribal and federal representatives in charge of river operations.
▪ Cut spending for salmon recovery efforts to offset the costs of breaching. Stop the harvest of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River for five years — one salmon life cycle — to allow fish populations to build quickly.
It didn’t take long before the Portland Oregonian, the Lewiston Tribune and the Tri-City Herald all wrote editorials arguing the Statesman was wrong.
The Herald, now owned along with the Statesman by McClatchy, was particularly adamant. “Bad science. Bad economics. Bad timing. Bad politics. Bad neighbors. Bad stewardship. Bad biology,” its editorial board wrote.
Later that year the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered the removal of the Edward Dam on the Kennebec River, a far smaller dam than the four Snake dams. It was the first dam the federal government ever ordered torn down.
National stories called it the beginning of a river restoration movement, a tetonic shift from a national attitude that all dams are good and necessary. They often referred the the Statesman’s editorials.
“I have no question that the Idaho Statesman editorials had a major factor in now what has now become a nationwide movement,” former Interior Secretary and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt said in an interview Wednesday. “They were on the front end.”
Since then, papers across the country have written dozens of editorials favoring removing the four dams, from the New York Times to the L.A. Times. More than 1,000 dams on U.S. rivers have been removed, bringing new life to waterways ranging from the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers in Maine to the Elwha River in Washington.
“The Statesman’s editorial series was ambitious and groundbreaking,” said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers. “It stimulated a public dialogue about the costs and benefits of the Lower Snake River dams and dams nationwide.”
Some Lewiston shipping officials have blamed the editorials for adding to the uncertainty of their business, which has dropped by more than 70 percent since. Others continue to criticize the Statesman for not calling for removing Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon dams, which serve Boise.
But the Idaho Statesman editorial board has held its position through seven publishers with seven different approaches, including its current stand written last December.
I have written about the issue as a reporter and columnist since 1990, and what matters is not my opinion, but yours.
A lot has changed since 1997. The federal government decided not to breach the dams in a review completed in 2000; it instead spent $2 billion to improve fish passage through them.
Idaho and the Nez Perce tribe reached an agreement on water rights that allowed the federal government to send some of the state’s irrigation water downstream, as it is doing right now. That limited the impact on farmers and other water users, but helped young salmon survive the trip through the eight dams on the Snake and Columbia.
Two federal judges repeatedly ruled the dams remain a barrier to endangered salmon recovery. The government is once again doing an environmental review. Dam supporters in Congress are trying to stop it.
My editors and our partners at McClatchy, including the Tri-City Herald, are examining the issue again in a series I began at the mouth of the Columbia with videographer Ali Rizvi and a trip following Idaho’s salmon home in May. Our first segment of stories and video about salmon and orcas ran earlier this month.
The next segment on power and dams runs in August. More will follow.
CORRECTION: This column originally misnamed biologist Frank Young.