Government Efforts to Avoid Disclosure of the True Impacts of Dams on Salmon

“Dams are good scapegoats. These concrete monoliths serve as tributes to a technocratic age. They cannot talk, and they weather the abuse heaped on them while continuing to slave for those of us who benefit from their power.” Courtland L. Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia98

The Corps' attempt to expose the 95% figure fell upon deaf ears. No news outlet ever picked it up. The Clinton/Gore Administration response? The individuals involved were censured. The Walla Walla office of the Corps was so badly bruised by this and other experiences that friendly sources in the Corps who would reveal information about the Great Salmon Hoax told us they were afraid their phone calls were tapped in the office, and would speak only at home. The Clinton Administration's gag orders extended throughout the federal bureaucracies, constraining all those who dared challenge the conventional "wisdom" about salmon. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration have become silent scapegoats and monoliths.

The Corps office at Walla Walla has a long history of blurting out the truth about salmon and dams and being slapped down for it. Keith Petersen’s anti-dam tract chronicles efforts by the Walla Walla office in 1955 to publicize scientific information about salmon passage that triggered such outrage from the fishery agencies that Brigadier General Louis Foote was forced to reprimand the District to keep the peace.99 In 1968, a study showing lesser effects than those claimed by fishery interests was the subject of pointed attacks.100 And again in 1970, the Walla Walla District “published a brochure responding directly to [environmentalists’] accusations” about adverse effects of Lower Granite Dam, triggering another round of adverse publicity.101

But by 1994, when Walla Walla had apparently forgotten what happens when it tells the truth about salmon, its efforts didn’t even make an impression on the public. The media simply ignored them.

I have frequently talked to scientists employed by the federal agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, who will admit that the official Snake River Salmon recovery plan has no hope of making measurable changes in salmon populations. They acknowledged that the pro-flow and pro-spill biases introduced by political appointees lack any scientific support. They will deride the pseudo-scientific "studies" offered in support of these initiatives as "crap". They lament the increasing role of political appointments in fishery agencies, as "consultants" are engaged to fill policymaking roles formerly held by career civil servants. But when I ask them to take a stand publicly, they all refuse. Some are near retirement, and fear outright termination. Others take a moralistic stance, suggesting that would be lowering themselves by becoming public advocates for any particular issue.

From my perspective, this is an instance when "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing". But from their perspective, this is not a question of good and evil; all that is at issue is whether a great deal of money is wasted.

The climate of fear extends beyond federal officials to academia. Professor Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington submitted an extraordinarily frank paper to the National Marine Fisheries Service in connection with its listing of Snake River sockeye salmon, but requested that it be kept "confidential" because "enough people hate me already".102

The unwillingness to speak the truth about the effects of dams on salmon is only one example of a more general politicization of salmon issues. Almost no one speaks the truth about harvest either. United States fishery experts involved in setting ocean salmon harvests, the subject of international disputes with Canada, admit that harvest rates are too high, but are unwilling to say so publicly. Instead, they tell reporters, off the record, that current harvest levels are so high that if they had been in place earlier, “Washington coastal fall chinook, Snake River chinook and mid-Columbia summer chinook would have gone extinct”.103

In 1995, I became aware that industrial interests, agricultural interests, and, most importantly, the mid-Columbia Public Utility Districts, were having tentative discussions to form a group that would fund a public relations drive to spread the truth about Northwest salmon recovery. The mid-Columbias, as they are called for short, are the Public Utility Districts of Grant, Douglas and Chelan Counties, Washington. They hold licenses from the United States Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate hydroelectric projects on the middle Columbia above the confluence of the Snake.

Their regulation of flow to keep mid-Columbia fall chinook redds covered has produced the largest naturally-spawning salmon run in the Columbia River. The Wells Dam was constructed with a unique design diverting excess flow directly over the powerhouse which turned out to provide excellent fish passage for juvenile salmon.

I was personally hopeful that the group, which had the working name of “Northwesterners for More Fish”, would make a real difference in dispelling the Great Salmon Hoax. Reportedly, the mid-Columbias were willing to devote $1 million to the initial public relations campaign. While that is but a fraction of the amount handed out by the government and foundations to promote the Great Salmon Hoax, it was enough to make a difference.

But the group came under immediate scrutiny by the news media, and was attacked over and over before it had ever even done anything. It’s not often that the media can destroy a group before it really begins meeting, which is a testament to the power of those promoting the Great Salmon Hoax. At the time, I thought the effort fell apart because of the adverse publicity. Later, I learned that Vice President Gore had personally called one of the board members of the mid-Columbias and told him that they would have regulatory troubles with their NMFS-regulated habitat conservation plans if they went forward.104 Without the habitat conservation plans in place, the mid-Columbias face their own huge fight over dam removal in relicensing proceedings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

98 C. Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia 4.

99 K. Petersen, River of Life, Channel of Death 117-118.

100 See, e.g., O. Bullard, Crisis on the Columbia 114 (“a study that showed that the newer turbines would result in a loss of only five percent at each dam came in for heavy criticism and charges . . .”),

101 Id. at 144-45.

102 R. Hilborn, "Some Reflections on Hatcheries or "You Don't Have to be a Rocket Scientist to See Some of the Problems" (April 3, 1992).

103 P. Koberstein, “Shipwreck! Is the Pacific Salmon Treaty Lost at Sea?”, Big River News (Fall 1996).

104 Gore was previously noted for telling DuPont personally that it had to go on producing CFCs, which he had previously termed “the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced”—destruction of the ozone layer—because the White House “feared a political rebellion” if citizens could not recharge their automobile air conditioners. G. Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth 545.

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