In the years before the lower Snake River was stilled by dams, people congregated on its beaches, fished from riverbanks, and camped and hunted in the river bottom. They rafted more than 50 rapids that once surged at up to 180,000 cubic feet per second through the remote, arid canyon–rapids with names like Log Cabin, Little Pine Tree and Haunted House.
When all four dams on the lower Snake River were completed in 1975, all of the free-flowing, river-related recreational benefits were gone and replaced with big, silent reservoirs with sterile shorelines. What was once a canyon where people floated, hiked, camped and hunted was transformed into a deserted place where few ever bother to go. What was once a booming recreation economy in towns like Lewiston, Clarkston, Riggins, Salmon and Stanley was transformed into a taxpayer-subsidized system of dams and locks of little–and decreasing–interest even to the farmers who use it.
Digging into the Numbers
In the final draft of its 2002 study on breaching the four lower Snake River dams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assigned to a dam breaching scenario a net recreation benefit of $71 million per year. This grossly understated estimate–lower than the Corps’ own contractors determined–was called into question even as the study was published.
As noted in a December 2000 Washington Post series examining corrupt cost benefit analyses performed by the Corps, the very economists hired for the study had actually estimated recreation benefits would range from $82 million to $509 million a year, with a midpoint of $196 million per year.
So where did the Corps’ $71 million figure come from? How could the agency justify such a gross understatement of the economic bounty a free-flowing lower Snake River would provide?
Part of the oversight may have been due to a lack of data, which became available seven years later. In 2006, the Outdoor Industry Association published the first comprehensive valuation of outdoor recreation in the U.S. According to its estimate, this sector of the economy is worth $646 billion annually. Western States’ disproportional share of the total is $256 billion annually, generating $31 billion in taxes and directly employing 2.3 million people.
Other regional and local analyses have followed. The National Park Service estimates non-motorized boating in the Grand Canyon generates $83 million annually and nearly 600 jobs. In 2007, according to the Colorado guides and packers association, river rafting in that state was worth $153 million. In the same year, fishing, jet boating, kayaking and rafting on the remote, 34-mile wilderness segment of the Rogue River in Oregon was worth $30 million.
None of these numbers cited above take into account the enormous economic impact a restored salmon and steelhead fishery would have on the Snake River and communities upstream in Idaho and eastern Oregon.
In 2001, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game calculated the direct spending benefit of its constituents who bought salmon and steelhead tags in a rare year of decent salmon returns to the state: $46 million, with $10 million of that in the rural riverside town of Riggins alone.
Other studies place the figures higher still. An April 2003 study by Boise-based Ben Johnson Associates, Inc. places direct and indirect angler spending in Idaho during the 2001 fishing season at $89.9 million. The same economic think tank did a follow-up report in 2005 to estimate the potential economic impact of restored salmon and steelhead runs throughout Idaho and determined direct and indirect angler spending could generate $544 million annually.
By contrast, the 1999 Corps report valued “general recreation” on a free-flowing Snake at a paltry $5.9 million to $31 million. Improved fishing, both in the Snake and its hundreds of miles of wilderness tributaries, was to be worth a maximum of $4.5 million.