The Columbia River Coal Wars begin
Focus on public subsidies of barging
By Sean Aaron Cruz
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams” –Eleanor Roosevelt
“No…selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”–Governor Oswald West, 1913, quoted by Governor Tom McCall on passage of the Beach Bill, 1967
The beauty of the Columbia River Gorge is truly in the eye of its beholder.
For an enormously powerful coalition of foreign and corporate interests, the beauty of the Columbia Gorge shows up on a profit and loss statement, as a matter of expedience, and now they dream of the Scenic Protection Area as an export route for endless trains and barges black with coal.
For many others, the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Protection Area has a stature as vital as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Taos Pueblo and many other natural and cultural wonders of the world, worthy of protection forever, some as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The imminent threat of coal barges on the Columbia River is now bringing these opposing dreams into sharp focus, as those who dream of profits are tightly organized and focused on fast-tracking permitting processes so that coal barging through the Scenic Protection Area can begin as soon as 2014.
The Columbia River Gorge Coal Wars have begun, and now is the time to take a critical look at the multi-billion dollar public subsidies that make barging through the Scenic Protection Area possible in the first place. There are no market forces at work here at all. There is an urgent need to examine all assumptions.
The American public subsidizes barge traffic on the Columbia River in three ways:
1. The public absorbs all operation and maintenance costs. Last winter, the Army Corps of Engineers replaced the lock gates at a cost of $ 50 million to US taxpayers, a direct subsidy to shippers.
2. Barge passage on the Columbia requires vast reaches of slack water, all detrimental to fish populations and habitat, and the public expense to recover threatened and endangered salmon species upriver from the Bonneville Dam is budgeted at $ 1.475 billion dollars, 2011-2019.
There no passenger or excursion boats that make this journey through the Gorge, either upriver or down, so all of this slack water—and the Columbia Gorge itself—is held captive for the exclusive benefit of a barge monopoly.
3. The public subsidizes barging also in foregoing what could take place in the Columbia Gorge Scenic Protection Area were the subsidies to end, and therein is the stuff that dreams are made of: the recovery of Celilo Falls and its great fishery, the righting of a great wrong, and a public policy achievement on the scale of the 1967 Beach Bill.
Celilo Falls is the key to the future use of the Columbia River.
Celilo Falls lies intact and submerged upriver from the dam at The Dalles, flooded since 1957 only to facilitate barge passage through the Gorge, not for hydropower or for any other reason.
Celilo Falls can be recovered with no impact on hydropower generation at The Dalles.
The American public might be in a mood to take a good hard look at the subsidies it dedicates to barging on the mid-Columbia, and the mission of the US Army Corps of Engineers related to navigation could be subject to review and change.
So far, there is no countervailing argument in terms of job creation and economic development being put forward as to the long-term, strategic use of the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Protection Area.
What is missing from this public policy discussion is a view of the Scenic Protection Area as a place, unique to itself, and an evaluation of the economic development and job creation that would result if the Columbia River Gorge were so prioritized.
What would be possible in the Columbia Gorge were the barge subsidies to end and the water levels adjusted?
What could we create there with this new prioritization?
These are good questions, well worthy of the broadest public discussion, at the highest levels of governance.
Those who dream of profits see the Columbia River Gorge as a route.
Those whose dreams are filled with scenes of salmon leaping up cascading rapids, Native fishers on platforms and scaffolds, must recognize the urgency of the situation and the scale of the opportunity.
Will the Columbia Gorge Scenic Protection Area be a place or a route?
Organize! Act! Believe in the beauty of your dreams!
This essay was published by the Portland Tribune, Sustainable Life section, November 19, 2012, under the title: “Activist: Let’s Restore Celilo Falls.”