SPOKANE — Some environmental groups are complaining about the teleconference format for gathering public comments on a federal government proposal to save salmon runs on the Columbia River system.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the government is holding teleconferences, rather than in-person public hearings, on its new proposal that downplays removing four dams on the Snake River to save the fish.
The teleconferences are cumbersome and allow for far fewer comments than the traditional public hearings, environmental groups contend.
“Twenty years ago, 800 people turned out for Spokane’s public hearing on whether the dams should be removed, with the vast majority testifying in support of restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River,” said Sam Mace, a spokeswoman for the group Save Our Wild Salmon.
“The teleconference calls clearly are not working for the public, with only 20-30 people speaking,” Mace said.
She and other environmentalists are calling on the federal government to double the comment period to 90 days and hold more hearings.
“This doesn’t feel like a meaningful way to engage the public,” said Robb Krehbiel of Defenders of Wildlife. “Lots of people have other things on their plates.”
“Public hearings give people an opportunity to look agency decision-makers in the eye and share their views, which gives them a sense they are being seen and heard,” said Rob Masonis of Trout Unlimited.
Amy Echols, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division in Portland, said people at this point should plan on the comment period ending on April 13 as planned.
“We are pleased with the fact that people are calling in,” Echols said. “It’s meeting our need to get input.”
Echols said the five hearings so far have had some 100 people listening in and 30 to 40 speaking at each one. Each person is given three minutes to talk, she said.
The last telephone hearing of the six scheduled will be Tuesday.
Echols said people are still free to submit written comments on the controversial plan.
Advocates for saving the dams say the teleconferences are social distancing at its finest.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., whose district includes several of the dams, said the teleconference format actually helps people living far from cities.
The long-awaited federal report was released in late February and rejected the idea of removing four hydroelectric dams on the Snake in a last-ditch effort to save threatened and endangered salmon.
The four dams on the lower Snake River are part of a vast and complex hydroelectric power system operated by the federal government in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The four dams, built in Eastern Washington between 1961 and 1975, are at the center of a years-long battle that pits the fate of two iconic Pacific Northwest species — the salmon and the killer whale — against the need for plentiful, carbon-free power for the booming region.