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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

November 18, 1994

Air Date: November 18, 1994


Salmon Run for Their Lives / Jennifer Schmidt

Jennifer Schmidt reports that the dangers facing salmon on the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest are worse than ever. Once a plentiful food source and active industry, salmon habitats have been threatened by damming, farm irrigation, ranching, and the aluminum industry, and many feel if immediate action is not taken, with all the new obstacles to their spawning grounds, their remaining days will be few. (13:15)

Subsidies Effect on Salmon

Water subsidies may be the biggest problem facing rivers in the Pacific Northwest. That's according to Mr. Terry Anderson, Senior Fellow with the Political Economy Research Center, a think-tank in Bozeman, Montana. In an interview with host Steve Curwood, Anderson foresees that environmentalists will team up with fiscally conservative lawmakers to change the way water is managed. (05:07)

Listener Comments

We air listener comments from the last few shows, both spoken on our listener line and written over the computer lines. (03:17)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Maria Vitale, Don Gonyea, Jennifer Schmidt
GUEST: Terry Anderson

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

In the Pacific Northwest, sharp declines in wild salmon seem to be setting the stage for major confrontations involving the Endangered Species Act.

TUTTLE: Our fall Chinook runs are down to about 300 fish. And if you can imagine, around the time of World War II, the fall Chinook runs were at 72,000 fish.

CURWOOD: An elaborate and expensive series of giant dams for power and irrigation are blamed for destroying the salmon, and some say eliminating taxpayer subsidies for these dams is key.

ANDERSON: I think that subsidized destruction of the environment, as I like to call it, is the place to start in achieving environmental quality.

CURWOOD: The emerging battle over wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest, this week on Living On Earth. First news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich has chosen a tobacco industry champion to head the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and that could halt House investigations of tobacco companies. The choice of Virginia Representative Thomas Blyly is one of a number of upcoming changes that will impact environmental issues. Several committees which now have jurisdiction over environmental legislation could be abolished and replaced with a single Natural Resources Committee responsible for all environmental issues.

Africa's oldest national park may fall victim to Rwanda's civil war. According to the New York Times, 30,000 former Rwandan government soldiers and their families living in Zaire's Verunga National Park have deforested more than 100 square miles of the preserve. The park is also threatened by the foraging and waste of another 900,000 refugees living within walking distance of its boundaries. The park is home to half the world's remaining mountain gorillas.

The operators of a controversial Ohio cement factory say they will stop using hazardous waste to fuel the facility and several others. The plant outside of Dayton has been the focus of a nationwide debate about the safety of burning toxic waste in cement kilns. The kilns' owner say it was changes in the hazardous waste market, not environmental concerns, which prompted the move. Maria Vitale of Ohio Public Radio reports.

VITALE: Hazardous waste is no longer a money maker for the Southwestern Portland Cement Company. The cement kiln began using hazardous waste as a low-cost fuel in the mid-80s, when many businesses were looking for ways to dispose of their toxic garbage. Environmentalists criticize the practice, claiming it emitted hazardous chemicals into the air. For years, local environmental groups have been staging protests and filing lawsuits in an effort to halt incinerations of the plant. But Southwestern's environmental manager, Bill Volschel, says it was economics, not pressure from environmentalists, that dictated the change.

VOLSCHEL: Because of a dramatic change in the business, we decided to redirect our focus to the core business, which is cement and concrete products.

VITALE: Environmental activists say they're pleasantly surprised by Southwestern's decision to pull out of the hazardous waste burning business. The kiln's parent company, the Houston-based South Bound Corporation, plans to stop burning hazardous waste at all of its cement kilns by the end of 1995. For Living on Earth, I'm Maria Vitale in Columbus, Ohio.

NUNLEY: Russia's environmental cleanup efforts have gotten a $165 million boost in the form of a loan from the World Bank. Two thirds of the money will update Russia's archaic methods of environmental and natural resource management. The rest goes to clean up some of the country's most polluted regions, including the Upper Volga River, the Ural Mountains, and the North Caucuses. The World Bank says 43 Russian cities are in urgent need of relief from air pollution. Hundreds of fish and animal species are endangered and deforestation is out of control.

One of Detroit's Big Three plans to sell stripped-down autos to a small company for conversion to electric power. The deal between Ford Motor Company and California's US Electric Car could put more affordable electric cars on the road within a year. From Detroit, NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

GONYEA: For years, US Electric Car has been buying fully-assembled small cars, removing the engine, transmission, and other components, and replacing them with an electric motor and electric-powered drive systems. Under the agreement with Ford, the company will now purchase factory-built cars consisting of everything but an engine and drive-train components. US Electric Car officials say this will save them a step in converting the vehicles to electric, and save them money because they'll be no wasted parts. This is Ford's first such arrangement with a so-called converter company. Though the auto maker says it may still seek other similar deals with other companies, it's still not clear what the vehicles will cost, but it's expected to be considerably less than the $35,000 the average converted car goes for. Ford, meanwhile hopes that vehicles converted by US Electric Car will count toward quotas each manufacturer will be forced to meet under new California air quality rules. Those regulations say 2% of all cars sold starting in 1998 must be electric-powered. For Living on Earth, this is Don Gonyea.

NUNLEY: One of the world's largest timber companies is joined with one of the richest conservation groups to preserve what the group calls one of the country's last best places. The deal between the Nature Conservancy and Georgia Pacific will preserve almost 15,000 acres of pristine swamp and forest land along North Carolina's Lower Roanoke River. Under the agreement, all logging in the area must be approved by the conservation group and all trees that are cut will be removed by helicopter rather than trucks. Georgia Pacific will also stop logging altogether on another 6,500 acres. The deal could become a model for protecting forests on private property.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Salmon Run for Their Lives

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Once again, the Pacific Northwest is apparently headed into a bitter environmental dispute. Feelings there are already raw from nearly a decade of wrangling over old growth forest, and that conflict still awaits final resolution in the courts. Far bigger stakes are at risk in the emerging struggle over wild salmon. The Columbia River Basin was once home to the world's largest salmon runs, but since the 1930s, at great expense, some of the world's mightiest dams have been built on the Columbia system to power homes and factories and water the land. As a result, salmon runs have dwindled sharply, and some are close to extinction. Federal and regional officials are scrambling to come up with plans that will save the fish in the next few months, but should they fail, the battle over salmon will probably head into Federal court. It could prove to be the most important case ever brought under the Endangered Species Act, a law which itself is under fire by those who feel it protects nature at too high a cost to humanity. From Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt has our story.

(Running stream)

SCHMIDT: As it weaves through eastern Washington, the Columbia River forms a path of shimmering blue in an otherwise austere landscape of sagebrush and coolies and barren brown hillsides.

(Running motor)

SCHMIDT: On this windy fall day, Washington State biologist Larry LaVoie moves a small boat across the choppy water. He points to dozens of Chinook salmon darting just below the surface.

LaVOIE: It's just more or less the start of the spawning season. There's a spawning red right there. You notice the gravel's been cleaned away. You might have even been able to see a fish scoot away there; there's another one there.

SCHMIDT: Each year LaVoie comes to this section of the river to count fish. The area is known as the Hanford Reach. It is the last stretch of the Columbia that still flows freely.

LaVOIE: This is the kind of habitat that salmon are used to. It's a moving river. It's got good gravels, a variety of small little habitats that the young fish can get their food on. This is - this is what's left of probably the tremendous salmon runs that historically the Columbia had.

SCHMIDT: Nowhere is the loss of salmon more evident than on the Columbia's main tributary, the Snake River. In recent years, Snake River salmon have faced brutal conditions. Their spawning streams have been damaged by erosion caused by grazing and logging. A prolonged drought has also taken a toll. But the worst killer has been the hydroelectric dams. Snake River salmon must pass 8 dams on their way to and from the ocean. It's a journey that's proved deadly. One run of salmon is already extinct, and most others are now on the Endangered Species List. Merritt Tuttle of the National Marine Fisheries Service says the situation has recently reached a crisis point.

TUTTLE: Our runs have literally collapsed in some areas. Our fall Chinook runs are down to about 300 fish. And if you can imagine, around the time of World War II, the fall Chinook runs were at 72,000 fish. Our Sockeye salmon runs in the Snake River system are down to 1 fish this year.

SCHMIDT: The pressure caused by this crisis has become a lot more intense this year. In two separate rulings, Federal courts have blasted Federal and regional officials for failing to take the steps necessary to protect and restore salmon runs. Policy makers have scrambled back to the drawing board and are now working to revise their plans for protecting the fish. They don't have much time. What may be the last viable population of salmon on the Snake River will migrate out to sea this coming Spring. Biologists warn it's crucial to protect these fish and say plans to do that need to be in place within the next few months.

(Woody Guthrie: "Now river, you can ramble where the sun sets in the sea, but while you're ramblin', river, you can do some work for me. Roll, Columbia, won't you roll, roll, roll. Roll, Columbia, won't you roll, roll, roll...")

SCHMIDT: In his songs, Woody Guthrie celebrated the era of dam building on the Columbia, an era which began 50 years ago with the completion of Bonneville Dam. Dozens more followed: Grand Coolie, Ice Harbor, John Day, Lower Granite.

(Dramatic background music and announcer: "An unshackled giant becomes a sea way to an empire. The promise of power for every corner of the Northwest. Power to make a million and a quarter acres bloom again...")

SCHMIDT: At the time, promotional films heralded the transformation of the region.

(Announcer, continued: "To bring better crops and better living to the farmers of the region. Power for the home. Good light for Billy's eyes. Electric cooking for Mother...")

SCHMIDT: But what the region did not foresee was the toll the dams would have on salmon. Each year millions are chewed up in the power generating turbines, injured and diseased at the fish ladders, or crippled by slow-moving reservoirs. Up till now, river managers have tried to protect salmon by barging them around the dams. Despite the plummeting numbers of fish, dam operators and many other river users say this is still the best way to ensure the survival of endangered salmon runs. But opponents like Tim Sterns of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of environmental and fishing groups, say putting fish into barges exposes them to disease and disrupts their ability to create an internal map that allows them to find their way home years later.

STERNS: Barging is not going to be any long-term substitute for fixing the river. And in fact it may even be illegal. If you look at the Endangered Species Act, it requires you to protect the animals' habitats. And taking fish out of the river is not a good substitute for fixing the river. You know, its advocates cling to it not so much because it works, but because it allows them to operate the system for their benefit.

SCHMIDT: Save Our Wild Salmon says major changes are needed. In the short term, the coalition wants to leave more water in the river, and let it flow through the dam's spillways rather than diverting it into turbines. This would mean less power for the region. But advocates say it would speed up the salmon's migration and reduce mortality. They also call for partially draining some reservoirs to strengthen the river's natural current, and in the long term possibly emptying them all the way, effectively disabling the power generators. Save Our Wild Salmon's vision for the Columbia is currently shared by the states of Oregon and Idaho, local Indian tribes and coastal communities. But those who oppose these proposals say such changes to the river system could literally destroy the Northwest.


SCHMIDT: Just before dusk, Bud Mercer scrambles down a rocky, sage-covered hillside and heads over to his small pump house, which juts out into the Columbia.

MERCER: There's about 5,500 horsepower here, pumps enough water to irrigate 4,400 acres.

SCHMIDT: The water Mercer takes from the Columbia has transformed his land from dry scrub into a mosaic of brightly colored fields of corn and carrots, wine grapes and potatoes. As Mercer stares out at the river, which is now wide and deep and calm, he describes with evident disdain how the area looked before the dams.

MERCER: It was the damnedest desert you ever saw. And, you know, I'd been stuck out here when I was a kid in a jeep, and we used to chase cattle out of this brush in the summer time, it was hotter than hell. You know, flies all over the place. Bad news country. A lot different now, a lot of uses here for a lot of people.

SCHMIDT: Mercer worries that some plans to save the salmon will leave his pump house high and dry. Inland ports are also against lowering reservoir levels, since it would impede upstream barge traffic and hurt commerce. The owners of aluminum smelters along the Columbia are worried, too. These huge, smoky factories use a quarter of all the power produced by the dams. Operators fear changes to the river system will send power prices skyrocketing, and push the smelters into bankruptcy. Ken Peterson is the head of Columbia Aluminum. He says there are salmon on other rivers, and it might not be worth saving them here.

PETERSON: At a certain point, the men and women who make their living in aluminum and the men and women who make their living catering to the needs of those who actually work in that industry, in the subsidiary, and auxiliary industries, are worth more than the 2 Sockeye salmon that may get to Idaho.

SCHMIDT: Nobody is saying the region has yet reached the point where salmon should be sacrificed. For now, the aluminum industry, farmers and ranchers say they're willing to do what it takes to help salmon runs recover. They just take the position that recovery is possible without major alterations to the current system. They favor a proposal put together by some of the region's top biologists based on improved barging and trucking. It also calls for additional reductions in commercial and tribal fishing. Bob Heinith, a biologist working with local Indian tribes, says that proposal is unacceptable.

HEINITH: The tribes have given, time and time again have given a lot of their resource, and they keep waiting, they keep saying when is the hydro system going to give something? When are the irrigators, are the grazers going to give something back to the system?

SCHMIDT: Heinith says the tribes have no more to give.

HEINITH: For the first time, ever, this year, there weren't enough fish for people to do their burial ceremonies, and all other types of ceremonies in their longhouses on the reservations. People are panicking on the reservation that there aren't enough salmon to have their, to carry forward their basic cultural beliefs and ceremonies. And it's a crisis for the tribal people.

SCHMIDT: The tribes say the Federal Government has a legal obligation to restore salmon runs, not just because of the Endangered Species Act but because of treaties that guarantee tribal fishing rights. But the loss of salmon has affected more than just the tribes. It's also dealt a devastating blow to commercial fishermen.

HOGAN: This is my boat. This is the Jean and Paige, named after my two daughters. It's a 28-foot tawley craft stern picker.

SCHMIDT: Gillnet fisherman Jim Hogan has been fishing the Columbia for 20 years, and has gradually watched his season dwindle from about 7 months in the early 1970s to just 18 days this year.

HOGAN: For the first time in my life I put together a resume the other day looking for some sort of job over the winter, see if I can find something to, you know, keep going until - see what next year brings. But right now it's not looking very good.

SCHMIDT: Fishermen are bitter at those who have characterized the salmon debate as one of jobs versus the environment. Merritt Tuttle of the National Marine Fisheries Service says this portrayal also disturbs him.

TUTTLE: I guess the thing that bothers me about people saying the economic cost is not worth it - it's like throwing away an industry. We have an industry that we had down through time, where people could commercially fish, people could go aboard charter boats and recreationally fish. It was the life blood of many of the coastal communities that we have throughout the Northwest.

SCHMIDT: For the time being, Federal and regional officials remain tight-lipped about the changes they're considering. If planners follow the Federal court's directive, the Northwest is likely to see expensive changes, not just to the hydrosystem but to the entire economy. Electric rates are sure to rise, and there could be even more restrictions on logging and grazing in watersheds and near spawning streams. With pressure building, something is going to have to give soon. There's already talk among some river users of urging Congress to use the emergency valve in the Endangered Species Act and assemble a "god squad" to overrule the law's requirements. The recent elections have also emboldened those who oppose major changes. The new governor of Idaho, unlike his predecessor, is strongly opposed to lowering reservoir levels. And many of those elected to Congress have promised to take a hard look at the nation's environmental laws. The results could be a major political battle, and some of predicting the salmon crisis will be the issue that blows apart the Endangered Species Act. For Living On Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

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(Music up and under)

Subsidies Effect on Salmon

CURWOOD: In the weeks and months ahead, the battle over salmon could line up between those who favor vigorous enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and those who argue that such enforcement will cost too many jobs. But there is another position, one that is shared by some environmental advocates and fiscal conservatives alike, and that is the notion that electric power and irrigation are produced at enormous cost to taxpayers in the form of subsidies. And that if power companies and farmers had to pay the real price for irrigation and hydroelectric projects, the economics would change drastically in favor of the fish. Terry Anderson is an economist with the Political Economy Research Center, an environmental think tank in Bozeman, Montana, which promotes free market solutions to environmental problems.

ANDERSON: If you look at the cost versus the benefits on projects in the Pacific Northwest, you will find that benefits are often only 10% of the costs.

CURWOOD: Ten percent?

ANDERSON: And that's the kind of order of magnitude we're talking about. They are enormous drains on the economy, on the Treasury.

CURWOOD: You're saying that for a dime's worth of water someone's spending a dollar? The government, taxpayers?

ANDERSON: Exactly what I'm saying, and that exists all through the West. There are subsidies to the agricultural users, subsidies to the hydro power users, subsidies to the recreational users.

CURWOOD: So they cost taxpayers more than the individual users get back out of them.

ANDERSON: Not only do they cost taxpayers more than individual users get, but when you add up all the benefits, the costs always outweigh the benefits, and that's without trying to account for many of these environmental costs such as the salmon. A good rule of thumb is that it costs $500 to deliver an acre foot of water; that's 1 foot of water covering 1 acre of land, to an agricultural crop, and that agricultural users pay approximately $50 for that acre foot.

CURWOOD: Boy, it's a good deal if you can get it. So why not get rid of these subsidies? Doesn't sound like it's a bargain for anybody.

ANDERSON: I think that subsidized destruction of the environment, as I like to call it, is the place to start in achieving environmental quality. With the growing deficit, I think that there is a real potential marriage between fiscal conservatives and environmentalists, and that's how to get rid of the subsidies. I think if that happens, and I think this new Congress just elected is one that may be right for that, because people are saying we want change. So I think there is hope there.

CURWOOD: So then, it may be, will be possible then to get rid of subsidies. But what do you recommend right now if it's not possible in the near-term to get rid of subsidies or the dams?

ANDERSON: I think that we can, can take a smaller-scale approach and encourage what I like to call free-market environmentalism. Two examples come to mind: one, I think environmental groups should follow the lead of the Oregon Water Trust, which recently leased water from an Oregon rancher to leave that water in a stream for spawning habitat. That doesn't require political change; it doesn't require getting rid of subsidies. It simply requires environmentalists to put our money where our salmon are, our water is. So that's, that's number one. I think secondly, and tied to that very closely, is to allow the existing water users, irrigators, hydro power users, to participate more fully and more freely in a market process, so that if people want to purchase water and leave it in-stream, they can. If we were to just free up the power markets and allow more wielding of power amongst the various quadrants in the country, that would achieve a power efficiency that I think would also enable some water savings.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you, Terry Anderson, what's the next step we should take then, if we were to follow this notion of yours to expand the use of markets to buy water for salmon?

ANDERSON: The next step I think is for the environmental community to begin to understand the power of the marketplace for achieving environmental quality. I personally believe that there is a value to these fish in the stream, in their natural habitat. The problem is translating that value into a market process. And I'm saying that we as environmentalists should become spokespeople for the fish, place a value on them, let that value be at least articulated in the market process. Even if it isn't as big as we might want it to be, at least we get some voice, a voice we now don't have.

CURWOOD: Terry Anderson is an economist and Senior Fellow at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. Thank you, sir.

ANDERSON: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What do you think? Can economic incentives and an end to subsidies save Northwest salmon and other endangered species? Give us a call at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or you can reach us on-line. The address is LOE@NPR.ORG. We'll give you those numbers again in a few minutes, but first let's check the listener file from the last couple of weeks.

(Music up and under)

Listener Comments

CURWOOD: A number of you responded to our segment last week about the new Republican majority in Congress, and our question about whether the GOP sweep carries a new mandate for a conservative approach to environmental protection.

CALLER: Hi, this is John in San Francisco. I hope we can look forward to an emphasis on sound environmental regulation without as much authoritarian, nightmarish type of legislation that we've had in the past. I think there will be a lot more emphasis on sound, scientific research in new proposals.

CALLER: Hi, my name is Jill Nyland. I'm from Chicago. My station is WBEZ. I just want to say I abhor the know-nothingism of the Chenoweth of Iowa types, the new Republican supposed mandated folk. And I think that the Newts, Phils and Bobs of the world misjudge the American people's interest in the environment. The last poll I saw said that 84% of the people wanted stronger or to keep the same environmental laws that we have now.

CALLER: Hello, my name is Steven Travali. I'm calling from Seattle, Washington. I listen to KUOW here. I think that it's a false claim, and I think that the Republican party very successfully appealed to the fear and to the emotion of the American public. And I think it's up to those of us who recognize that to begin to counteract that by organizing and on a grassroots level for environmental issues.

CURWOOD: "In listening to your show, I was somewhat disturbed to hear representatives of environmental organizations talk about anti-environment Congressmen," writes Dr. Thomas R. Jackson over the Internet. He continues, "Disagreeing with an environmental organization's agenda does not make one anti-environment any more than disagreeing with the Black Caucus makes one a racist. It's just this sort of smug arrogance that has cost environmental organizations credibility. By accepting such distortions unchallenged, your own credibility is also compromised."

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Our phone number again is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. You can reach us through the Internet at LOE@NPR.ORG. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: The Living on Earth production team includes Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, Conn Von Hoffman, Heather Corson, David Dunlap, and Jonathan Medwed. The coordinating producer is George Homsy and the associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our director is Deborah Stavro, and the program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngelis. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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