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By John Webster
The Spokesman-Review

It happened quietly, unnoticed in the storm. Like a salmon hatching in sonic remote Idaho stream, while thunder rockets off the mountain walls and hail pelts the leaves.

Last month, with little fanfare, two large hygroelectric dams won a 45-year extension of their federal license.

Environnmental groups and Indian tribes applauded.

‘They applauded! In spite of the fact that these two dams – Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids – stand directly in the path of migrating fish species, one of them listed as threatened under terms of the Endangered Species Act.

Could there be hope in the storm of controversy that now rages between advocates for fish and advocates for dams?

If there is, then the combatants on all sides ought to pause for a moment of reflection. They ought to ask whether the approach that made peace on the Clark Fork River could achieve peace, and progress, elsewhere in our region.

Battles over dams are going to grow in number, noise and cost in the years to come. The four famous dams on the Lower Snake River are only a beginning. Some activists want to breach John Day. Also, license renewals must be sought for Priest Rapids, Wanapum and Rocky Reach dams on the Columbia, the Hells Canyon complex on the Snake and six old dams along the Spokane River. To name a few.

Each dam is unique. Power production varies, operating costs vary, impacts on the environment vary. But all dams hold potential for years of litigation and politicking between those who want them removed and those who want them to remain.

These battles are very expensive, for both sides. Lawyers and political activists no doubt appreciate the work and fund-raising opportunities that a long standoff generates. But the quiet voice of common sense would suggest that these fights stymie on-the-ground environmental improvements and create damaging uncertainties for business growth and energy planners. On Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, for example, battle has raged for 30 years over relicensing of the Cushman dam. Combat over the lower Snake dams holds a similar potential.

This is why Spokane’s Avista Corp. sought a better way – and found it.

Avista owns the Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids dams. Together, their generating capacity totals 697 megawatts. That’s approximately half of Avista’s generating system. Inland Northwest residents need that power.

For Avista, removal of the dams was unthinkable. But instead of preparing for a war, the company prepared for peace. It committed to invest major sums in natural-resource enhancements, reducing or at least compensating for harm done by the dams. It sought out potential critics – tribes, wildlife agencies and environmental groups — soliciting their ideas and inviting them to design the mitigation strategy.

When necessary Avista paid for travel costs to the committee meetings. It invited critics to design scientific studies showing impacts of the dams. The company explained its concerns and listened to the concerns of others. Over years of meetings and negotiations, trust and respect appeared. The tribes sought and won commitments to protect cultural sites along the river.

And, instead of locking in a fixed strategy to help fish, Avista committed to a living license,” founded on adaptive management. The company will pay to transport migrating fish past the dams and to improve their habitat. It will pay to monitor results. If one method doesn’t work it will shift to another. A management committee including scientists, environmental activists and tribal representatives will oversee the effort as the years go by. Even before the license was issued last month, Avista put this system into place. Fish didn’t have to wait for years of litigation.

As a result, bull trout and western slope cutthroat trout, among others, are benefiting today from Avista’s promise to spend $220 million over 45 years minimizing impacts of the dam.

Tony Incashola, of St. Ignatius, Mont., represents the Upper Pend Oreille Tribe in this undertaking. He praises Avista’s respectful attitude: “They realized how we look at the fish and wildlife as equals, not as something to be dominated…. It’s like caring for your own personal garden. You take care of it on a daily basis, then in the end you reap from your garden.”

Chip Corsi, a biologist with Idaho Fish and Game Department, said he felt the negotiations provided a chance to “do a lot of good for fish without going to war with Avista over these projects.” The result? “Instead of spending money on lawyers, you’re spending it to help the resource.”

Bob Dunnagan of Sandpoint, an activist with Trout Unlimited, credits Avista for “a corporate ethic that is probably different from most companies…. I honestly feel they have a stewardship responsibility for the lands and resources they oversee.”

Contrast those words with the incendiary rhetoric hurled at industries with a stake in the Snake River dams.

Astounding. Avista won this respect even though flatly refused to remove the dams. In quiet negotations, away from the battlefields of media and politics – could that be a factor? – it explained, listened, learned and generously invested.

Even now, after hearing the parties describe what happened, I can’t quite put my finger on the secret. And yet, in this story I think it’s possible see hope, darting like a minnow in the shadows of a mountain stream. Congratulations to all.

Spokesman Review
Spokane, WA
March 12, 2000

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