Bush's Salmon Policy Debatedby Les Blumenthal, Washington, D.C., Bureau
Tri-City Herald, August 22, 2003
WASHINGTON -- While President Bush is expected to cite near-record runs as a sign Pacific salmon are on the rebound when he visits a Snake River dam today, serious doubts remain over the long-term prospects for the fish and the administration's commitment to saving them.
Bush, as part of a swing through Western states over the past month to defend his environmental record, will be appearing at a symbol central to the debate over salmon. Ice Harbor Dam is one of four dams on the lower Snake that environmentalists and American Indian tribes say need to be breached in order to help restore the river to a more natural condition and revive what may be the region's most endangered salmon run.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush came out firmly against dam breaching.
But his administration is conducting a "bottoms up" review of the very plan designed to avoid dam breaching. The comprehensive plan, known as the biological opinion for the Columbia and Snake rivers, calls for improving spawning habitat, increasing river flows and making hydroelectric dams more fish-friendly.
The biological opinion is not the only policy under scrutiny.
The administration is in the midst of a wide-ranging review of whether 26 of the 28 salmon stocks, ranging from northern California to Puget Sound, should continue to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. That review could result in some of the stocks being delisted and federal protections for the salmon lifted.
Most recently, the State Department has come under pressure to find more than $1 million in funding to head off the possible collapse of a 1985 treaty with Canada that oversees management of the salmon in the ocean.
"No shoes have dropped yet, but there are a lot of shoes in the air," said Kristin Boyels, a lawyer with EarthJustice in Seattle who has tangled with the Bush administration in a string of court cases.
All of this comes at a time when more and more salmon are returning to the rivers and streams of the Northwest.
Most scientists, however, say the strong runs are the result of dramatically improved ocean conditions and not federal policies. As climactic conditions known as El Nio and La Nia have faded, an upwelling of cold water along the West Coast has produced an abundance of the salmon's favorite foods -- krill and smelt.
Even the Bush administration official most closely involved in developing salmon policy concedes ocean conditions are the major cause of the improved runs.
"I'm not ready to claim victory," said Bob Lohn, the Seattle-based regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries. "We are not going to rush into decisions on the future of these stocks based on increased runs."
Ocean conditions are cyclical, and without improvements to habitat, fish passage at the dams and increased flows to speed migrating juveniles downstream, there are no guarantees the runs would remain healthy when the ocean conditions again deteriorate.
"On average, the runs are replacing themselves," he said.
Environmentalists and the tribes remain skeptical.
"The policies of this administration will not prevent these fish from extinction," said Steven Robinson, a policy analyst with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia. "They are basically doing nothing."
Lohn defended the administration's efforts, saying most of the reviews were driven by federal court decisions.
While the review of the Endangered Species Act listing of the runs could result in some of the runs being de-listed, Lohn emphasized, "We are not rushing to any conclusions. It's an honest look at the long-term prospects for each of these runs."
The review won't be released until early next year, and then there will be a year of public comment, he said. The timing puts any decisions on the listings off until after the presidential election.
The review of the Columbia and Snake rivers biological opinion is the result of a "carefully crafted and technical" decision by a federal court judge in Oregon overturning the opinion, Lohn said. But he added that the ruling gave the administration an opportunity to take a "fundamental" look at that salmon plan.
As for habitat critical to the salmon's survival, Lohn said the administration was working on a "more selective approach" that should be released in a few months.
Environmentalists and the tribes say the administration has been quick to settle lawsuits or has refused to appeal judicial decisions challenging federal salmon policies. Most of the lawsuits have been filled by interest groups aligned with the administration such as homebuilders associations and irrigation groups.
"They (the administration) want to take credit for the ocean conditions and squeak by on everything else," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon. "Instead of capitalizing on the good news, they are using it as an excuse to delist, eliminate critical habitat and cut funding."
Ford said the administration implemented less than a third of the measures required under the biological opinion in 2002. The cost of implementing the biological opinion has been estimated at up to $950 million annually, but the Bush administration has been providing, at most, $550 million, he said.
Lohn dismissed the $950 million estimate as a "back of the envelope rough guess" and said the administration has provided adequate funding and completed most of the required measures.
"The biological opinion doesn't declare success based on the amount of money spent," he said.
Though the biological opinion is under review, it currently requires the federal government to start looking at dam breaching if the runs aren't improving.
"I'm not willing to say we are out of the woods, but the trend is improving," Lohn said.
Ironically, some Northwest lawmakers fear this Bush administration is making the same mistakes with salmon the administration of Bush's father made with the spotted owl in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The owl, protected under the Endangered Species Act, is dependent on old-growth forests. Environmentalists asked a federal judge in Seattle to halt logging in federal forests to ensure the owl's survival, touching off protests through the region's timber communities.
The first Bush administration opposed efforts to protect the bird and, at one point, even convened a special committee that has the power to let species go extinct. The federal judge finally shut down logging in the forests until an owl plan was developed under the Clinton administration.
"We're headed in the same direction on salmon unless this administration does more," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.
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