Babbitt says Bush, Congress Need to
by Tom Detzel, The Oregonian staff
WASHINGTON -- A couple years ago, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was party to the Northwest Salmon Plan, an ambitious effort by federal agencies to save imperiled fish runs without removing dams on the Lower Snake River.
On Wednesday, Bruce Babbitt, as a private citizen, joined environmental and tribal interests to warn that a judge soon may end up determining the fate of salmon unless the Bush administration gets serious about making the salmon plan work.
"We've been through that before in the Pacific Northwest," Babbitt said, citing legal battles in the 1990s about the northern spotted owl that effectively shut down the timber industry until political leaders forged a regional truce.
But Babbitt said the region is "heading into a confrontation that need not occur" because the administration and Congress has failed to put enough money into salmon restoration or implement major parts of the 10-year plan.
Releasing an annual report card on the plan, a coalition of advocacy groups called Save Our Wild Salmon gave the government flunking grades, which were strongly disputed by agency officials running salmon programs.
Only 27 percent of the 150 recovery measures called for in the first two years were enacted, the salmon group said, and spending levels are half the $900 million a year envisioned by biologists when the plan was adopted in 2000.
"This is in our view a grave failure," said Pat Ford, the group's executive director. "People, communities and economies of the Northwest will be the victims if we do not restore Columbia and Snake River salmon."
But Bob Lohn, Northwest fisheries manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said more than 90 percent of the actions required under the plan were under way in a satisfactory fashion by last year.
"So far, we're seeing the progress we expected to see and the results we hoped to see," Lohn said, calling the $900 million figure cited by salmon advocates an early, "back of the envelope" estimate from a working group.
He said more realistic cost estimates won't be available until planning is completed for Columbia tributaries, and a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said its salmon budget is growing and is adequate to meet the plan.
Ford said the administration asked for less salmon money overall in 2004.
In addition, the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from dams on the Columbia system and is in a fiscal crisis, wants to cut $160 million in wildlife spending through 2006 to minimize a coming rate increase.
The reduction really isn't a cut because the agency thinks it can meet all the salmon plan goals even with the reduction, said Ed Mosey, a BPA spokesman.
The BPA and other federal agencies charged with carrying out the salmon plan are to make a three-year progress report in September. A negative report could reignite a controversial proposal to remove four dams on the lower Snake.
Lohn said progress suggests the salmon plan will succeed without dam removal. He said record runs the past two years, even though largely of hatchery fish, show that dam operations are working to enhance survival.
In all, 13 salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Ford said dam removal is the best option to recover runs. Justin Gould, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said agencies haven't delivered on promises to move aggressively on the salmon plan.
"If this trend continues, we see fewer and fewer choices available to our tribes that won't lead us further toward the courts," he warned.
Babbitt said a court fight like the "train wreck" over the spotted owl can be avoided if agencies follow through on the salmon plan.
"The experience of Northwest forests should serve as a bright-line warning to any administration that is bent on sidestepping the law," he said.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who chairs a subcommittee on fisheries, said Wednesday he might hold hearings on the "slow pace" of salmon recovery. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he continues to oppose removal of Snake River dams, and he called for stronger leadership in the White House and Congress to prevent salmon from turning into a "legal demolition derby."
"This is a very precarious time, and failure to make salmon protection and recovery a priority can have huge economic ripples," he said.
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