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Ochenski: The View from Afar

Why Montana’s energy policies are running against the current—and the salmon

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Portland, Ore.—Like Lewis & Clark, and the aeons of Indians before them, we trace the drainages of the Columbia River west to the shores of the great Pacific Ocean. Unlike those earlier travelers, we don’t have to ponder the way or find the hidden path, we simply parallel the massive power lines leaving Montana and follow them west into the sunset. Like us, much of the power produced by Montana’s resources is going to the West Coast. Unlike us, the power will not be coming back to the Big Sky state after a short stay and a swim in the Big Salt.

The Power Corridor, where enormous towers stand like H.G. Wells’ Martian invaders with arms outspread, leads us through thousands of square miles of treeless, sun-drenched lands where mini-vortexes create dancing dust devils hundreds of feet tall. Far below the arid bluffs, what’s left of the once-mighty Columbia struggles to maintain its flow to the ocean as continuing drought and increasing demand decimate the streams and rivers of the upper drainages. The massive concrete dams stacked one on the next change the mighty river into a series of nearly currentless lakes. For the salmon, those huge, wonderful fish that have filled these waterways since time immemorial, the challenge of getting upstream past the dams to spawn is nearly insurmountable. For those strong and lucky enough to find the genetically-imprinted streams of their birth, the chances that their young will make it back to the ocean are even worse. Confused by the lack of downstream current, the juvenile salmon must run a gauntlet of predators lurking in the reservoirs. For those that do make it, the blades of the hydro-electric turbines await —and extinction looms.

The view from afar, looking back on Montana from the terminus of the power lines, reveals a system horrendously out of whack. We are told there is a power shortage. We are told our society cannot afford to release the stored water to create the “flushing flows” necessary to sweep the young salmon back to the sea. We are told, by politicians like our own Sen. Conrad Burns, that the needs of the people must come before the needs of the fish. What Burns really means is that we must sacrifice the fish and the natural ecological balance of the earth because politicians like him don’t have the guts to change long-standing systems and implement solutions that meet our energy needs while maintaining and enhancing long-term environmental stability. Yet, despite the political rhetoric of the “drill and burn” crowd, it becomes more evident daily that the lack of vision and fortitude to make those changes, and the concurrent disruption of the global climate, may ultimately doom us as well as the salmon.

Want an alternative scenario? Instead of a trillion-dollar tax cut to the wealthiest among our people, what if we had invested that money in changing the systems to save both us and the salmon? What if we looked from afar at the whole resource supply and demand picture? What would we see? What could or should we do? And what would be in it for Montana?

The view from afar would reveal far more energy potential in the windswept, sun-drenched plains than in all the waters of the mighty Columbia. We could, if we had the will to change the system, ensure the continued survival of the salmon by freeing the river and harnessing the vast resources of the sun and wind. Those same massive towers that now carry the power away from Montana could be supporting turbines that spin ceaselessly in the constant winds for which the Columbia Gorge is world famous. Those high and arid plateaus above the river could be sprouting fields of solar panels, quietly churning out the megawatts. The needs of the West Coast could, and should, be met by the renewable, sustainable resources of the West Coast.

Getting it done, however, would take real initiative, real investment, and real leadership. Instead of encouraging energy conglomerates to suck Montana dry like a spider on a fat fly, our political leaders could make the case for national investment in appropriate energy supplies to meet regional demands. In Montana’s case, we’d benefit all the way around. If we could keep our energy closer to home, we’d have twice as much as we need. Instead of living in fear of astronomical increases in energy costs, we could happily look forward to reductions in the price of heating and lighting our homes. Instead of inviting energy predators to suck every last drop of Montana’s resources for out-of-state needs, we could be attracting those who are looking for a clean environment AND a predictable energy supply. We could have both. Or we could have neither.

The view from afar shows the situation as it currently stands. Just follow the wires back upstream, and you’ll see Montana as it is—an energy colony for the ever-growing demands of the West Coast. It is also clear that now is the time for our politicians to champion the necessary policy and investment changes to take us in the right direction. The question is: will they? In the long run, appropriately meeting energy needs while restoring the natural systems would be good for the state, good for the people, and yes, Senator Burns, even good for the salmon.

When he’s not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is poking sticks in the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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