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Senator Barbara Boxer Opening Statement

9/13/00 - Delivered before the Committee on Environment and Public
Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water Works

Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for holding this oversight hearing to address the important questions surrounding the recovery of the listed Snake River salmon runs. The size of our witness list is a good indication of just how complex and controversial this issue is. It would be easy to assume that the debate over these Snake River salmon is of importance only to the people of the Pacific Northwest. While people in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho will undoubtedly be the ones most directly impacted by efforts to save these fish, the issue has larger implications that transcend the region and place it squarely on the national radar screen. At its essence, the debate over Snake River salmon raises tough and fundamental questions about whether we as a nation are serious about two of our most important federal environmental laws -- the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

Nobody in this room would challenge the assertion that we have dramatically altered the natural ecology of the once mighty, free-flowing Snake River. The human impacts on the Snake river system have left a river with water quality that is in extreme violation of the Clean Water Act and a set of salmon stocks that are just barely staving off extinction.

The salmon species in question are of religious and spiritual importance to Northwest tribes; they are cultural icons for the region; and they were once an economic mainstay because of the tremendously valuable commercial and sport fisheries they sustained. In fact, the decline of these salmon stocks have led to restrictions on salmon fishermen operating from central California all the way up to Alaska.

While there are people who argue that we need not save every species from extinction, even opponents of the Endangered Species Act would have difficulty arguing that it is in the region's interest -- or our nation's interest -- to watch these particular fish runs go extinct. In fact, it would be hard to find a species more deserving of protection than these salmon. If we are not serious about saving these salmon or restoring the water quality in this river -- it is hard to know under what circumstance we would ever be serious about it.

Yet, for decades we have either avoided the issue or employed expensive, but unsuccessful recovery tools. The result has been that we have had to watch as these fish continued their precipitous decline toward extinction.

I take this issue particularly seriously because I view our commitment and success in saving the Snake River salmon as a good indicator of how we plan to handle the many listed salmon stocks in my state. Interestingly, many of the major papers in my state have made this connection and have editorialized in favor of removing the four lower Snake River Dams to recover the salmon. Similarly, I have been contacted by many California fishermen, conservationists, and sportsmen who support serious efforts to save Snake River salmon because they view it as an indicator of how the federal agencies will approach salmon recovery in my state.

Unfortunately, I must say that I am deeply concerned that the draft biological opinion that has been produced will do little to steer us toward more effective Snake River salmon recovery efforts. The biological opinion appears to rely on recovery strategies, such as trucking and barging, that have already cost millions of dollars, but have proven relatively ineffective. The opinion avoids the issue of dam removal which federal scientists have suggested is the clearest and most certain route to salmon recovery -- but offers few really aggressive alternatives to compensate. The plan also lacks an adequate mechanism for triggering emergency recovery actions should the proposed strategies fail. I would like to see a plan that has much more specific performance standards and timelines for meeting those standards. Having said this, I am not suggesting that this draft biological opinion be jettisoned in lieu of some alternative planning effort. For the last few decades, we have planned for and studied these salmon stocks nearly to the point of extinction. It is vital that this biological opinion be reworked to present a more realistic recovery strategy for Snake River salmon. It is also vital that we keep this effort moving forward and produce a good biological opinion in a timely way. The last thing we need is to further delay the important decisions that must be made.

We have an obligation to fulfill the mandates of our federal environmental laws, to meet our treaty commitments to the Native American tribes, and to preserve these species for future generations. I look forward to hearing from the witnesses how this biological opinion might be improved to achieve those goals.

Senator Barbara Boxer
Senator Barbara Boxer Opening Statement
Committee on Environment and Public, Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water Works - September 13, 2000

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