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Dam Removal

It's about rebirth, not destruction.
Fly Rod & Reel    April 2002

From May 1998, when International Paper applied for a removal permit, until drawdown in September 1999, locals mounted nine legal challenges. Then, after drawdown got underway, they temporarily halted work with more legal challenges. There were bomb threats, including one from a fellow who vowed to blow up International Paper's buildings, by which act he would have done away with the impoundment he was trying to save because the buildings were part of the dam complex. DNR crews who supervised the project were harassed and threatened. Dam defenders festooned the town with black crepe paper and "Save the Lake" signs. They proclaimed that the exposed mud flats would release volcano-like plumes of blastomycosis (an often fatal fungal lung disease endemic to wetlands of northern Wisconsin). When a local doctor publicly testified that this was nonsense and that the bottom of the impoundment was probably the only blasto-free habitat in the watershed, his practice was boycotted. For standing alone among his neighbors in defense of his home water, the River Alliance of Wisconsin proposed to honor him with an award; but he declined it because he didn't want any more bad publicity.

The state council of Trout Unlimited fought hard for removal of the Ward Dam, but such was the local intimidation factor that TU's Merrill chapter refused to take a position. Even the Friends of the Prairie River, which exists for no other reason than to restore the river's health, stayed out of the controversy. The homeowners around the impoundment were eager to have anyone and everyone (except themselves) spend $2 million to rebuild the dam, and this in a town that had just defeated a referendum to rebuild the library. The day the dam came out International Paper got 17 phone calls from townspeople who confided that the company had performed a grand public service but that they'd been afraid to voice their support for fear of reprisals.

I don’t mean to be a scold, or to imply that there isn't lots of dam removal that's going easily and well. But with the exception of Trout Unlimited and a few other enlightened angling groups, America's sportsmen have been sitting on the bench. More disheartening is the fact that when sportsmen do get involved, they're often on the wrong side. Seeking information on the removal of the Condit dam on Washington State's White Salmon River, I contacted officers of the 70-member White Salmon River Steelheaders. To my astonishment I learned that what the group is working to preserve is, of all things, the dam. The 125-foot-high Condit dam, built in 1913, is thought to be the tallest dam slated for demolition in the nation. Six years ago the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission imposed $30 million in license conditions, including fish passage, on the owner--PacifiCorp. Since the dam produces a mere nine megawatts of electricity and its removal would cost only $17.5 million, Moe Howard could have made that business decision. Removal of this, the only dam on the White Salmon River, will open up 65 miles of mainstem and tributary habitat for desperately depleted Columbia River salmonids. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that removal will reestablish runs of about 700 adult steelhead, 4,000 spring chinooks, 1,100 fall chinooks, and 2,000 cohos. Babbitt called the project "the Northwest's epicenter of hope." How could any sane, sober steelheader possibly be opposed?

In separate interviews the president of the White Salmon River Steelheaders (Jim Anderson) and a board member who used to be president (Gary Lawson) went on and on about the importance of protecting, not wild steelhead, but the stocked, introgressed trout dumped into the impoundment by PacifiCorp as mitigation for its impassable dam. They called it a "family" fishery but offered no cogent explanation as to why families can't fish for wild salmonids, migratory or otherwise, or crappies or bluegills elsewhere, or, for that matter, stocked, introgressed trout in all the thousands of other places where they unfortunately are available.

I encountered the same disconnect in Oregon, where Portland General Electric wants to disappear its Marmot Dam on the Sandy River. The state stocks the river below the dam with hatchery steelhead and chinook salmon, then sorts returning adults, passing only wild ones. By reopening 100 miles of spawning and rearing habitat from the Pacific to the headwaters on Mt. Hood, Marmot's removal would ultimately produce more fish and fish of quality; but because no sorting would be possible, the present gravy train of fin-clipped, genetically impoverished hatchery stock would have to cease.

This makes perfect sense to sportsmen with what Aldo Leopold called an "ecological conscience," but not to the 250 businesses, organized guides and organized anglers in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska who call themselves the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "We were blindsided by Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, Oregon Trout and the Native Fish Society," complains Director Liz Hamilton. "You can't convince someone that they need to put money away for college, which is the long-term stuff, when you're taking dinner off the table. I think Portland is trying to make a deal with the National Marine Fisheries Service so the feds can get a quick [endangered species] victory and the city can protect its water supply somewhere else. The deal was done behind closed doors; there was no public process."

Ignorance among sportsmen is no less rampant on the other side of the continent. In the last session of the Maine legislature, Downeast bass guides got a bill introduced to halt all dam removal. It failed, but sponsor Rep. Albion Goodwin (D-Pembroke) predicts future success. He has it straight from the guides that native alewives would wipe out alien smallmouths if they re-colonized the St. Croix drainage (this despite the fact that the two species happily coexist everywhere else they share habitat). In the 2000 session Goodwin succeeded with a bill to prohibit the state from allowing passage of alewives (along with everything else that negotiates the St. Croix) without a vote of the legislature. Most of Maine's lawmakers swallowed it all hook, line, boat and motor.

Goodwin in full cry is something to behold. "We have dams all over the state, and people are trying to tear them all out," he laments. "It's dangerous because you're gonna form up about 1,500 terrorists. You know what a terrorist cell is? It's a person who lives on a pond that pays taxes and has a little dock and a canoe, and he wakes up one morning and he lives on a brook that's a half a mile away. The director of Inland Fish and Wildlife cannot introduce alewives without a vote of the legislature. That's what I did with my bill. That includes the Marine Resources idiot, too. They're two commissioners from away—one from Arizona and one from Virginia. I told the governor to hire a Maine person who knows the lakes and rivers, but he's from Virginia. What does he care? Fred Kircheis [director of the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission] is running for cover 'cause I told him I was all done funding him. I'll shut him off, and he'll start running back to Minnesota. The goddamned Canadians wanted to raise alewives for fertilizer and bait. I told those sons of bitches to build a fishway on their side of the river. I sent 'em all packing: 'Get the hell out of Calais before I have you run out as terrorists.' And away they went a-running."

Such attitudes discourage, especially in a state that tore down the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River, thereby providing the nation with one of its most spectacular river-restoration success stories. Now, 27 miles upstream, residents of Waterville are bringing lawn chairs to the Kennebec's banks to watch the aerial acrobatics of sturgeon and salmon. Now, 17 miles upstream, all 10 anadromous fish native to Maine are headbutting the 94-year-old Ft. Halifax Dam at the mouth of the Sebasticook River. Under conditions of the Ft. Halifax Dam's operating license the appearance of these fish requires the owner, Florida Power and Light, either to install fish passage or excise the dam. But bass fishermen are crusading to save the impoundment. Writes Maine guide James Gorman of Winslow (incorrectly): "All the meadows and farms you see in the Sebasticook Valley exist because the beavers kept the river dammed, which created natural impoundments allowing silt to settle, thus establishing top soil." Ken Fletcher of Save Our Sebasticook calls those who want to free the river that his outfit is pretending to save "an elite group of artificial-lure fishermen."

Last summer members of Save Our Sebasticook and other dam defenders went canoeing on the impoundment with staffers of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "It was just clogged with algae," recalls the council's Laura Rose Day. "Yet these folks stretched their hands out wide in the sunshine and said: 'How could you ever want to change a river like this?'" Then, giving her the finger, one of them accused her of plotting to return all Maine's rivers to their "primitive state."


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