Pacific Northwest fish restoration debate reaches Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, March 07, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska congressional delegation appears to be at odds with the state Department of Fish and Game over removing dams as a way to rebuild endangered salmon runs around the Pacific Northwest.

Delegation members are expressing doubts about tearing down four Snake River hydroelectric dams to restore natural fish runs.

''While I share their concerns about the loss of fish runs, we've reached a point where biologists tell you we are beyond the point of being able to renew the runs,'' Sen. Frank Murkowski said Monday.

Sen. Ted Stevens said the salmon problem is one for people in the Northwest to resolve, but indicated he had deep questions about removing the dams.

''It is also a question of where the power will come from to replace the dams' (electric generation), where the money will come from to destroy them and whether the destruction of the dams is the only method of protecting the fish runs,'' the Alaska Republican told the Anchorage Daily News.

Stevens chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which would have to agree to spend the money to breach the four dams if the Clinton administration chooses that course.

Rep. Don Young also isn't convinced that dams are the problem. Young said he was a flat-out no vote on the question of dam removal. Young chairs the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal fisheries

Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue issued a statement Friday saying the agency backs scientific findings demonstrating that the best option is to remove the earthen portions of the four Lower Snake River dams and restore habitat.

Scientific studies show fishing is not what has depleted the salmon runs, Rue said. A federal proposal to further limit the harvest of Snake River fall king salmon would ''eliminate sport and commercial chinook salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska and make little or no progress toward recovering endangered stocks,'' he said.

The question of how to rebuild the stocks of salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Columbia River Basin and Snake River has generated a great deal of controversy around the Northwest. The issue has reached into Alaska with suggestions that fishing be reduced in northern waters to protect Northwest salmon.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has scheduled a number of public hearings around Southeast Alaska this week about alternatives for saving the remaining salmon that make it upstream to spawn. A decision about a recovery plan is expected in May.

So far, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is the only governor supporting the dams' demise, but that may change this week when Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles testifies at the hearings.

While Knowles was in Washington last week for a National Governors Association meeting, he called the Snake River dams the ''killing fields'' for salmon.

Knowles said fish mortality caused by the hydroelectric turbines is so severe on salmon that it was ''safer for them to travel by truck than by water.''

But Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said taking down the dams will only increase environmental problems elsewhere.

He cited remarks at a committee hearing last week by Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith and Washington Sen. Slade Gorton that removing the dams will strand barges that can travel as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho. It would take 700,000 tractor-trailer trips a year to move the cargo now hauled by the river barges.

''There's an environmental tradeoff on air quality and (traffic) congestion,'' Murkowski said.

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