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Commentaries and editorials

Bush Administration
Gambles on Dams, and Loses

by Jim Fisher
Lewiston Tribune, June 1, 2005

When the Bush administration promised this region it could rescue dwindling salmon runs while keeping the lower Snake River dams in place, it owed area residents more than the wild gamble it delivered.

That gamble -- that it could simply declare the dams part of the region's ecosystem and therefore impervious to significant change -- lost spectacularly last week in U.S. District Judge James Redden's Portland courtroom. And it ended up having the reverse effect of what Bush promised to do. Redden's rejection of the administration's plan leaves the dams more vulnerable today than they were when Bush took office.

So apparently are the salmon. One of the notions that Redden rejected was that any number of surviving fish is enough to satisfy the Endangered Species Act's protections of them. Preserving salmon listed under the act as museum pieces is dubious enough as an argument, but as a policy it is an insult to the Indian tribes -- including the Nez Perce Tribe -- that were among the plaintiffs seeking this ruling.

It wasn't as if NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency in charge of restoring the ocean-going fish to the Columbia and Snake river systems, hadn't been warned against what Redden termed "arbitrary and capricious" decisions, either. The judge's previous rulings pointed the government in the direction to head, and it chose to ignore him.

Because of that, the region now faces the prospect of a judge determining how the dams will be operated during a summer of low water. That is something almost no one -- Redden especially -- should welcome.

Thanks to the administration's presumptuousness, however, it is hard to see an alternative. Although NOAA Fisheries has pledged to spend $6 billion in dam improvements, especially ways to permit downstream passage with less damage to fish, Redden obviously believes it has been working harder to save dams than salmon.

That is a sharp contrast from the Clinton administration, which chose not to support breaching the dams but left that on the table as a last-ditch option if other means failed.

Under the plan Redden rejected, there was no such option. Breaching was taken off the table, even if that meant extinction for the salmon. And Redden is far from the only one to find that unacceptable.

Jim Fisher
Bush Administration Gambles on Dams, and Loses
Lewiston Tribune, June 1, 2005

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