Utilities Plan Public-Relations Campaign On Salmon

SPOKANE - Utilities and business interests are preparing a public-relations campaign to influence opinions on how to save wild-salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest, an organizer says.

The interests held a closed-door meeting Friday at a private club to discuss ways to present their views to the public, said J. Vander Stoep of Chehalis, a former legislator and former top aide to Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash. Vander Stoep organized the meeting for the Chelan Public Utility District.

"Right now it appears for the first time that the people driving the federal recovery for the Snake and Columbia salmon runs are becoming moderate and open to the most cost-effective way to save the resource," Vander Stoep said after the meeting.

The unusual meeting was by invitation only. Gorton lent his name to the invitation under the letterhead of a Washington, D.C., public-relations firm but did not attend. Instead, he held a briefing on salmon issues at his nearby office in Spokane.

Some Northwest environmentalists objected to the closed meeting, and a tiny group of protesters stood outside the club holding small paper salmon signs. "If they really cared about salmon, they wouldn't be having closed-door meetings," said Lupito Flores of Spokane.

"It's just an outrage that Senator Gorton would meet in smoky, dark back rooms on an issue as important as salmon," said Jim Baker of Pullman, head of Northwest salmon-recovery efforts for the Sierra Club.

Gorton's office did not return several telephone messages.

Among those invited were two conservative Idaho members of the Northwest Power Planning Council, which is heavily involved in salmon-recovery efforts.

Not invited were the two Washington members. One of them, Mike Kreidler, said that was disappointing.

"Perhaps Slade Gorton is going to be running (for re-election) in Idaho," Kreidler said.

Two studies involving salmon recovery are under way, and the utilities and other industries should work with those efforts, Kreidler said.

Gorton wants to limit how much money is spent on salmon recovery, and that is the likely goal of any public relations campaign paid for by utilities, Kreidler said.

"I am very dubious that the people of the Northwest are going to be swayed that electric utilities are going to be able to portray themselves as saviors of salmon," Kreidler said.

The utilities and business interests were presented with a proposal to spend $800,000 to influence people in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana over the next seven months, Vander Stoep said. They are to decide in two weeks whether to participate under the name of Northwesterners for More Fish, he said.

The money would pay for grass roots organizing, advertising, public relations and other efforts to build support for a National Academy of Sciences plan to rebuild the salmon runs, Vander Stoep said. That plan was released in October.

The plan was more attractive to business than other proposals because it does not contend that each and every wild run of salmon in the Northwest must be saved, Vander Stoep said. Rather, the National Academy of Sciences plan says the costs of saving each run should be weighed against the benefits, he said.

Also, the academy plan offers cautious support for the practice of using trucks to haul migrating baby salmon around hydroelectric dams, saying there is no current evidence of a better way to move the smolts.

Many groups oppose that practice, preferring that water be released from reservoirs to speed up flow and naturally carry the salmon to the ocean via expensive fish ladders. That tactic leaves less water available for electrical generation and irrigation, costing those businesses money. Some interests have even suggested removing the dams.

Other consultants who made presentations included Sal Russo, who has worked for Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and William Bennett, and Tony Marsh, who has worked for the National Republican Senate Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Vander Stoep said that even though many of the participants were Republicans, the public relations campaign would be nonpartisan and would not contribute to political candidates in the 1996 elections.

While environmental groups were not invited, Vander Stoep said any who want to support the National Academy of Sciences report are welcome to join.