LEWISTON, Idaho -- The big barges and small cruise ships are almost a surreal sight as they sail past dun-colored farm fields and bare hills in the arid landscape of the inland Northwest.
But sail they do, to the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, through a breathtakingly deep valley carved by the Snake River, to Idaho's only seaport.
The Port of Lewiston is the inland most seaport on the West Coast, more than 400 miles from the Pacific Ocean. A series of dams and locks completed on the Snake in 1975 allow ocean-based commerce to be conducted here, and in two nearby ports in Washington.
But business has dropped sharply at the port, to 1970s levels, just in the past year, prompting longtime critics to suggest that the port -- which gets about 20 percent of its $2.29 million annual budget from local property taxes -- may not be economically viable in the future.
The chief critics are environmental groups which have been fighting for years to have the four Snake River dams breached because they contend the structures have decimated wild salmon runs.
Port director David Doeringsfeld said the number of ships calling on Portland -- where cargo from Lewiston is transferred to oceangoing vessels -- has been down the past couple of years because of the worldwide recession, and that hurts his ability to ship.