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A Win for Salmon

by Register-Guard Editorial
The Register-Guard, May 29, 2005

Judge rejects government's recovery plan

A federal judge in Oregon has rightly rejected the Bush administration's pricey pretense of a plan for protecting endangered salmon species in the Pacific Northwest.

The ruling marks the third time that the courts have swatted plans back to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Now, the administration should summon the science and common sense necessary to develop a plan that meets its obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

At the heart of U.S. District Judge James Redden's ruling - and the administration's fundamentally flawed salmon plan - is a network of dams, powerhouses and spillways scattered throughout the vast Columbia River basin.

Last year, the administration issued a presumptuous and unfounded opinion that the federal dams are immutable features of the landscape and that their removal could be no more viable under the Endangered Species Act than, say, the removal of Mount St. Helens or Hell's Canyon.

Having ruled out the option of dam removal, the administration proposed a long and expensive list of mitigating measures that it said balanced the needs of endangered fish with demands for electricity, irrigation water and shipping provided by the dams.

Apparently, the administration hoped Judge Redden would be so bedazzled by the $6 billion plan that he would overlook the skewed assumption that dams are permanent fixtures and that the government is responsible only for "discretionary" aspects of their operations.

The ruling is a major victory for environmental groups and Northwest tribes, but it shouldn't be interpreted as a green light to start bulldozing dams. Dams have been a key factor in the decline of salmon, but others include logging, fishing, farming and pollution. It's still possible that the government can devise an effective recovery plan that does not require removing dams.

But the ruling does mean the possibility of removing dams is back on the table - and that's where it belongs. As Gov. Ted Kulongoski noted, the possibility of dam removal and the hydropower and economic losses that would result should galvanize the efforts of Northwest states and federal agencies to forge a new recovery plan that avoids the need to breach dams.

Redden's ruling also means that the National Marine Fisheries Service should heed calls by Native American tribes and environmental and fishing groups for immediate changes to dam operations to boost salmon survival. Those changes include increasing low river flows and releasing more water over spillways - moves that would increase power costs and deprive farmers of irrigation water but that may be necessary to protect fish. If federal agencies are unresponsive to those demands, Judge Redden may not hesitate to grant fish a greater share of the basin's limited water recourses.

Meanwhile, Redden's ruling is likely to spur administration supporters in Congress to push forward with revisions the Endangered Species Act that would weaken its protections for salmon and other species. The administration may also decide to appeal Redden's ruling.

The government should instead focus its energies and resources on taking responsibility for salmon - and creating a new plan that will ensure their survival.

A Win for Salmon
The Register-Guard, May 29, 2005

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