Bush Focus on Salmon
President Bush was all about salmon Friday at Ice Harbor Dam, delivering a message tailor-made for the Mid-Columbia.
His renewed commitment to blocking any efforts to breach four Snake River dams to save the fish was a welcome development here, even if expected.
But it was also a subtle shift from three years ago, when Bush's campaign stop in Pasco was all about saving the dams and not much about fish.
It was important to see Friday's speech give equal time to threatened salmon.
"The mission has got to be to fight the decline," Bush told an enthusiastic crowd of about 500 supporters invited to hear the speech.
The thrust of his message -- that it's possible to keep the dams and restore salmon runs -- is one that most of us in the Mid-Columbia share.
We know the good life depends not only on abundant salmon, but also on the cheap power, irrigation water and other benefits of the dams.
It's good to know the president agrees. "We have shown the world we can have a good quality of life and at the same time save salmon," he said.
Bush's endorsement alone isn't enough, of course.
Salmon runs are way up -- from 7,990 chinook salmon passing through Ice Harbor Dam in 1995 to 127,062 last year.
But no one knows exactly why. Much of the credit goes to changes in ocean conditions to favor salmon, but human efforts to reduce fish loss in the rivers have helped, too.
Whatever the precise causes, virtually all experts agree that a downward cycle is sure to come. In the meantime, everything possible needs to be done to benefit salmon, or the dams will again become an easy target.
It will take the best efforts of all stakeholders in the Northwest to ensure that the dramatic gains in salmon returns in recent years don't slip away.
Right now, too many environmentalists are playing a game of all or nothing, unwilling to help any effort that falls short of removing dams on the lower Snake.
The strategy is bad for fish. It focuses the energies of people and organizations that could do the most for salmon on a lost cause.
The irony is that dam operators and farmers, by taking practical measures like improving fish passages and reducing water use, are likely to do more to save salmon than the legal maneuvers of an army of green lawyers.
But the Bush administration also has a role to play in fulfilling the promise of saving both dams and fish for prosperity.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Bush's budget request for next year includes a $165 million increase in spending for salmon recovery.
Money isn't necessarily the best indication of commitment, however. Badly spent funds won't bring the region any closer to ending the threat to salmon.
Bush's rhetoric Friday, at least, left room for speculation about whether the federal focus will still be sharp enough when the tough decisions need to be made.
"We want to be helpers, not hinderers coming out of Washington, D.C.," he said.
Neither is adequate. Saving salmon will require help for local efforts, certainly. But it also needs leadership on a national scale.
The scope of the problem is too big to resolve any other way.
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