Today in Idaho River History: Army Corps hosts contentious dam breaching hearing in 2000

IRU has been around more than 25 years. A new generation of Idahoans are entering the political arena, and Idaho is growing. With that comes a citizenry that may not know the history of  important river conservation issues. That's why we're starting a new column, "Today in Idaho River History," to revisit yesterday's battles and examine how they inform the work IRU is doing today.

IRU board member Tom Stuart offers testimony about the Army Corps' 2000 breaching analysis at a spring 2000 public hearing. Photo from IRU archives.

It’s been 16 years since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held one of the most heated public hearings in the long-running fight to save Idaho’s endangered wild salmon.

It was Feb. 10, 2000, and more than 1,600 people crowded into the Lewis-Clark Convention Center in Clarkston, Washington, to weigh in on the future of Idaho’s wild salmon and the lower Snake River dams that kill so many of them.

“Country music blared from loudspeakers on a stage erected by paper mill workers for a rally in the parking lot,” reported the Idaho Statesman. “Nez Perce drummers beat through the music as tribal singers competed for the ears of people lining up to sign up to speak.”

The hearing was one among 15 that the Corps held throughout the region that winter to collect feedback on its Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report, a 4,300-page paper that cost the Corps four years and $23 million to draft. (IRU continues to argue that the Corps cooked its books to come up with a no-breach recommendation, which it released in 2002.)

As it was at every hearing in Idaho, IRU was there to help organize salmon supporters. Former IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy and board member Tom Stuart were among them. So were members of the Nez Perce Tribe and a strong contingent of Riggins fishing guides who continue to support IRU’s work today.

“We were worried there might be some ugly confrontations, but there weren’t,” recalled Gary Lane, owner of Riggins-based Wapiti River Guides. “It was interesting because the drumming versus the country music was the one thing I thought was black and white: the Nez Perce drummers playing the beat of Mother Earth and the country western trying to drown them out. I thought it was symbolic.”

The hearing was attended by Idaho dignitaries including then Lt. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and Senate Pro Tem Robert Geddes, all of whom said they supported the status quo system of dams.

Sentiment from citizens was split, however. Even on the shores of the reservoirs created by the lower Snake River dams, support for the dams was far from unanimous.

“It wasn’t long ago that you came to this valley and sold us on these dams,” said Neal Toothaker, owner of MedTec Corp., a Lewiston Manufacturing company, who was quoted by the Statesman and referring to the Corps. “Now you’ve failed by not taking care of the fish, and you’re putting the burden back on the people of this valley.”

According to the Lewiston Tribune, most who testified said they supported removing the dams to save salmon. And that was in spite of an "aggressive advertising campaign against breaching."

If the Corps had listened to the people of the region at its 15 public hearings in the winter of 2000 it’s entirely possible that the lower Snake River would be free flowing and wild salmon already on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. The fight to save Idaho’s imperiled wild salmon is long and, unfortunately, ongoing. And taxpayers continue subsidize a system of welfare dams that all but wipe out wild salmon.

Stay with us in this fight. It’s been a long one, but we’re going to continue to cut through the smoke-screen actions of the Corps, NOAA Fisheries, Bonneville Power Administration and other agencies and special interests that have fought against progress tooth and nail on the lower Snake River. Stay with us, and together we'll free the Snake River.