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Audit Says Agency Hurt Salmon Effort

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, September 26, 2001

Leaked draft criticizes National Marine Fisheries Service as `arrogant, confrontational'

A federal auditor wrote last year that salmon recovery was "floundering" under the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The draft document was titled "Leadership Lacking in Northwest Salmon Recovery Effort." A shorter version, issued earlier this year as a memorandum to the agency's interim director, was not nearly so harsh -- and much more fair, a NMFS official said.

The author of the draft, who isn't identified, conducted "34-plus interviews of those involved in the salmon recovery effort." Although not identified in the draft, they included officials from federal, state and tribal agencies, as well as landowners and others affected by salmon policy.

Their consensus, according to the author: "NMFS' communications are inconsistent, unresponsive and unnecessarily arrogant and confrontational."

The agency was slow to provide necessary studies and promised reports, hampering salmon-recovery efforts, said those interviewed. That added to the cost and difficulty for those affected.

Okanogan County officials, who are highly critical of NMFS, say the draft document recently was leaked to them by an anonymous source. County Commissioner Craig Vejraska relayed it to reporters this week, along with a press release charging that the draft was "buried" by the Department of Commerce, of which NMFS is a part.

According to Vejraska, county officials had requested the audit from the Commerce Department some time ago, but was told it didn't exist.

The document, complete with grammatical errors circled in ink, never was intended for public release, said Elizabeth Barlow, council to the inspector general of the Commerce Department. Nor was it sent to NMFS.

It is "a draft of a draft" of a routine audit that was never completed, Barlow said. That often happens, she said, when situations found at the beginning of an audit change before the study is completed.

NMFS's Northwest spokesman, Brian Gorman, said much has changed within the agency since the auditor wrote the scathing draft. He noted that the document is more than a year old and the interviews might have been conducted more than two years ago.

Even if many of the criticisms were fair, "you can't assume that however many problems we had in 1999 that we've ignored them," Gorman said.

He said the agency was overwhelmed by the task of managing salmon and steelhead recovery after it added nine Northwest fish runs to the Endangered Species List in March 1999. Three runs already were on the list.

He cited a number of ways in which NMFS has improved -- or is improving -- its services. For instance:

•Tribes in the draft document criticized NMFS for not providing information about issues affecting them. But, Gorman said, the agency since has hired a liaison to work with the tribes.

•Scientific groups criticized NMFS for not sharing information. But Gorman said the agency held several daylong workshops to explain how it reached some of its most significant scientific conclusions regarding salmon.

•NMFS still is broadly criticized for not providing recovery goals for salmon in individual streams. Gorman said those goals now are in the works.

The agency is bound to draw criticism because it must enforce restrictions on land use, irrigation and other activities that might affect salmon, Gorman said. Sometimes those restrictions are costly.

"We bring bad news to people," he said. "We tell them that the way they've been doing things for 20 or 30 or 100 years is wrong and they have to find a new way of doing it."

The acrimony between NMFS and local residents is especially pronounced in Okanogan County, where some irrigation systems have been shut down at times since 1999. The county and a coalition of irrigators filed suit against NMFS in June.

Landowners affected by salmon-restoration efforts aren't the only ones critical of NMFS.

"I agree with a lot of those criticisms" in the draft report, said Tom Karier, one of two Washington representatives on the Northwest Power Planning Council.

"NMFS historically has not done its job and has gotten in the way of other people doing their jobs, and in some cases has tried to do other people's jobs for them," Karier said.

Karier said he thinks the agency will become more responsive under the leadership of Bob Lohn, who was appointed Northwest director earlier this month. Lohn, who takes over in October, has worked closely with Karier as fish and wildlife director for the power planning council.

"Bob understands these challenges," Karier said. "I'm hopeful that's going to help."

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
Audit Says Agency Hurt Salmon Effort
Spokesman Review, September 26, 2001

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