We haven’t much gotten into the Gordon Smith/Dick Cheney/Klamath fish killoff story since it first broke, in part because the details have been covered thoroughly elsewhere. But a story this morning in the Bend Bulletin does suggest a thought about the way Oregon Senator Smith is handling the matter, a pattern to look for in the year-plus to come.
To oversimplify, the issue concerns the low water flows in the Klamath River in southwestern Oregon and northern California, not enough water for both the farmers in the area and the fish in the river. Federal action – directed, we now know, by Vice President Cheney, partly on behalf of Smith (and with his approval) while Smith was up for re-election in 2002 – led to water delivery to the farmers. Some months later, an estimated 77,000 salmon in the Klamath died – the largest single die-off of fish ever recorded in the western United States. Cheney’s role in this has become the subject of a U.S. House committee inquiry.
Smith has defended the federal action, which was generally popular around the Klamath area but less so in urban areas – many found the fish die-off troubling at least. The Eugene Register Guard reported that “Smith, who pushed the Bush administration to help get water for farmers’ potato crops and alfalfa fields, said he recalled that the salmon ‘died of some gill disease, which is not uncommon and happens periodically.'” That (and his statement that the fish died a year and a half after the water shutdown, as opposed to the correct six months) has led to at least a limited firestorm. Blogs on the left have taken after Smith on these points, but so did the Register Guard, which editorialized: “The problem with Sen. Gordon Smith’s defense of the Bush administration’s 2002 decision to divert Klamath Lake water for irrigation isn’t that the Oregon Republican is wobbly on the facts. It’s that he’s willing to bend and selectively omit the facts to justify ideologically driven political positions.”
And: “In a subsequent interview with The Oregonian, Smith also said he doubts there was a connection between the salmon die-off and last year’s near-shutdown of commercial fishing off the Oregon Coast. While there were certainly other factors involved, fishery officials have cited the 2002 fish kill as one of the problems that contributed to the depletion of Klamath River runs. Smith has shown a willingness to overlook inconvenient facts before. Last year, he and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, promoted a bill that would have accelerated salvage logging and reforestation after fires, dismissing a study by Oregon State University researchers that raised serious questions about the practice.”
Bringing us to today’s piece by the Washington correspondent of the Bend Bulletin. After noting that “Smith in recent days has denied a connection between the water diversion and fish deaths,” he quotes Smith this way: “I’ve never said there wasn’t a connection . . . I’m just saying you can’t blame it entirely on the diversion as being the exclusive cause of the salmon die-off.”
A backing off and a search for middle ground, in other words – a move away from a hard position toward something definable as centrist ground.
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