A Fork in the River for Columbia Salmon
by Editorial Board
The Oregonian, March 17, 2011
One way leads back into an endless eddy of litigation, the other
to a broadly supported federal recovery plan that's off to a promising start
For over a decade, U.S. District Judge James Redden has refused to accept anything less from the federal government than a true recovery plan for Columbia River salmon backed by the best science, strengthened by collaboration and supported by reliable funding.
Redden has done his job.
Now the judge should let the federal agencies, the tribes, the Northwest states and all the thousands of people engaged in salmon recovery, do theirs.
Sometime soon, Redden will issue a long-awaited ruling on the federal government's biological opinion for Columbia salmon, the culmination of more than a decade of litigation over plans to restore the basin's threatened and endangered wild salmon. We strongly believe that the judge should now approve the federal government's salmon plan.
This, after all, is the plan that Redden pushed and pushed the federal agencies to deliver. It's based on a bedrock of strong, peer-reviewed science, not the shaky ideology and wishful thinking that underlined the 2000 and 2004 recovery plans rejected by the court. Dr. Pete Kareiva, a leader of an independent science review committee, said the plan includes "some of the most thoughtful conservation science analysis in a tough pragmatic situation I have ever seen."
Over the years, Redden presided over a courtroom jammed with competing voices representing the federal government, conservation groups, seven tribes and four states. He urged them to come together and develop, for the first time, a collaborative salmon plan. The federal government has delivered that, too. Six tribes and three states -- Washington, Idaho and Montana -- strongly support this plan. So do many key interest groups on the river.
Redden rightly objected to the federal government's previous stance that the Columbia and Snake river dams were "immutable" objects, more or less part of the landscape. This federal plan confronts dam passage issues and fully supports ongoing projects that are greatly improving safe passage of young salmon and steelhead headed downriver.
The judge was properly skeptical of promises of habitat improvement projects, especially in the Columbia estuary, and demanded more than a vague assurance of future funding. He's got that, too: The plan depends not on the vagaries of the congressional appropriations process, but from a dedicated stream of funding from the Bonneville Power Administration, an independent agency.
No, not everyone is satisfied. Conservation groups and the state of Oregon still contend that the federal plan is inadequate. It's hard to imagine any plan that didn't call for the removal of four Snake River dams that would satisfy the conservation groups. Oregon's objections are harder to comprehend. Former Gov. Ted Kulongoski wanted more costly water spilled over the dams for longer periods. Gov. John Kitzhaber has had little to say about the federal plan. But Oregon lawyers in the past have questioned the focus on habitat -- a curious stance for a state that has made habitat restoration the core of its own coho salmon recovery plan, arguably the biggest success of Kitzhaber's first terms in office.
These debates could go on forever, and if Redden again rejects the biological opinion, perhaps they will. But we think the judge has heard enough. He ought to clear his courtroom, one last time, and order everybody out to work in support of the clearly promising trends of Columbia salmon recovery.
The long legal process has been frustrating, but we'll concede now it was worth the wait. Redden's remands, the struggles to satisfy him, the years of work, the unprecedented collaboration, have resulted in the strongest commitment ever made to Northwest salmon. It's time for the judge to say yes.
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