News from the Front #38:

Sixty Minutes, Goebbels, and the Snake River Dams

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it."

                                   Attributed to Paul Joseph Goebbels (Hitler's propaganda minister).

On November 19, 2000, Sixty Minutes finally aired its curiously-titled segment entitled:  "Fish Fuss".  Lesley Stahl, the "journalist" who narrates the production, emits one whopper after another.  She begins with the biggest lie of all:  "Since the dams went in, the salmon have been disappearing".  In fact, the runs were depleted long before the dams went in (the first mainstem dam was Bonneville, in 1938), and the all-time highs measured came after all eight dams were built.

But the lie is repeated, over and over.  Ms. Stahl declares that "[t]he salmon population has plummeted, from 16 million at its peak, to just over one million today."  The "16 million" whopper comes from the Northwest Power Planning Council, which put forth a report exaggerating the historical peak of salmon by roughly a factor of two to help extract more money from the dam operators.  Ms. Stahl even says that the salmon were "once so plentiful that it was said that you could walk across the Columbia River on their backs".  There probably were streams in the Pacific Northwest literally carpeted with salmon, particularly near the spawning grounds, but no one with a firm grasp on reality could believe that about the Columbia River.  If Ms. Stahl, who visited the Columbia River in the filming of the segment, bothered to think about it, even she could figure that out. But it is apparently not her job to think, merely to mislead.

The thinking person is Karen M. Sughrue, the producer of the segment.  She is a master propagandist of the Goebbels school, framing the issue as "whether a series of dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers should be torn down in order to save the endangered salmon".  This is the big lie that has built the Salmon Recovery Empire: that the salmon are endangered and will disappear and, "under the Endangered Species Act, the government is required not to let that happen".  In fact, there are no endangered species of salmon, only endangered runs in some rivers.  And nothing in the Endangered Species Act compels protection of salmon runs; it is a political choice masquerading as "law".  

Ms. Stahl briefly mentions recent run increases, which she attributes to ocean conditions, and then declares:  "But it's still not nearly enough to get the salmon off the endangered list".  This is probably true, since the roads to endangered species listings are one way streets:  no amount of fish and wildlife is ever enough for fish and wildlife bureaucrats.  NMFS biologist Jerry Harmon told NW Fishletter in May that the Sixty Minutes team declined his invitation to film the bumper crop of salmon that were coming home. "They said they didn't want to confuse the issue," Harmon said.  Propagandists never want to confuse the issues with facts.

After painting the picture of a Pacific Northwest without salmon, the next job is to slam the dams.  Ms. Stahl reports that biologist Doug Arndt of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says "the turbines kill about half the fish that go through them".  The truth?  Turbines kill perhaps 5% of the fish going through them, so Sixty Minutes exaggerates by a factor of ten.  I know Mr. Arndt, and while I wouldn't characterize him as a heroic defender of the dams, he doesn't tell lies that big.  

As is its custom, Sixty Minutes relies upon leftist environmentalists for the whopper punch lines.  After quickly brushing off other sources of salmon mortality, Ms. Sughrue parades Idaho environmentalist Ed Chaney before the camera to assure viewers that "only one thing threatens the salmon with extinction, however, and that's the dams".  The show does show pictures of the tribal gillnet harvest, but says that the Tribes "are allowed to catch endangered salmon" "under the terms of a Treaty".  Of course the Treaties say nothing about endangered salmon; they permit the Tribes to catch salmon "in common with the white settlers", which was intended to mean under the same rules.  Even the Federal government does not contend that direct Tribal take of listed fish is legal, preferring the fiction that the Tribes (and others) target unlisted fish, and only "incidentally" take listed fish.

Having blackened the dams with Germanic efficiency, Ms. Sughrue focuses the balance of the program on exciting opposition to them based on her major theme:  the nation's taxpayers are being ripped off by "staggering" expenditures to save fish that are not working, instead of the supposedly simple and effective alternative of just ripping out the dams.  "The government spends a bundle", says Ms. Stahl; "billions have been wasted, and that's the real tragedy here".  Of course, what the government spends is not collected from the nation's taxpayers, but from enormous and ever-increasing surcharges on electricity generated at the dams; the assertion that "your dollars pay", applied to a national television audience, is another big lie.

Well-proven means of mitigating what effects do arise from dam operations, such as barging fish, are also targets of the big lie strategy.  "Ironically," says Ms. Stahl, "the well-intentioned barging may interfere with the salmon's homing instinct, which is essential to their survival."  That hypothesis was refuted decades ago, in solid research that even the conservation biologists no longer question, having shifted their attack to imaginary "latent mortality" from transportation--the "I was abused as a smolt" hypothesis.  Surface collectors, an efficient means of passing salmon over dams with far less water than spill, are slandered by claiming that a single one costs $200 million--roughly ten times the actual cost of a high-priced prototype.  (By contract, spill with almost no fish benefits cost the Bonneville Power Administration $600 million dollars from April to August of this year alone.)  

Ms. Stahl expresses open scorn at efforts to protect salmon other than dam removal, saying "the measures are so elaborate, the observer is left to wonder, who thought this up?"  Even scientific research on salmon, according to Ms. Stahl, "give[s] new meaning to the term government waste".  The bottom line, according to Sixty Minutes:  "after two decades of spending, the results are dismal."  Last time I looked, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers actually still had the stones to claim, correctly, that there is a reasonable chance that its mitigation efforts had prevented far larger salmon losses during an episode of the worst ocean conditions for salmon in 500 years.

When you run into a stream of whoppers this big, you begin to wonder what the motive is.  It could just be standard brain-dead reactionary liberalism.  Still, enormous effort is underway to turn the American West into a Nature preserve, more than just what you'd expect from witless do-gooders.  

Who are these people who think because they fly out once a year, they have any business telling us how to run our land?  Who is Karen M.  Sughrue?  Her footprints on the Internet describe her involvement with the Council on Foreign Relations, a shadowy group that figures large in the musings of conspiracy theorists.  We will probably never know why Eastern powers seem compelled to lie about the Snake River Dams.  But if we continue to spread the truth about the dams, dam removal will remain no more than a noxious fantasy.

James Buchal, November 30, 2000

You have permission to reprint this article, and are encouraged to do so. The sooner people figure out what's going on, the quicker we'll have more fish in the rivers.

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