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Chorus of Boos Greets Salmon Strategy

by Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times - July 28, 2000

Federal-agency leaders unveiled a salmon-recovery plan for the Columbia Basin in a Portland news conference yesterday to criticism from environmentalists, who said the plan is too little, too late.

They were particularly unhappy that the plan does not include any directive to breach four Lower Snake River dams. The decision not to push for breaching the dams came as no surprise; it was signaled by the Clinton administration last week.

George Frampton, acting director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said breaching the dams would help only four of 12 species of salmon listed for protection in the basin under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). And politically, breaching is not now a viable option, he said.

"There is not a single elected representative in Congress from the region that in any way supports breaching, and it would take substantially more than a decade to execute that strategy even if they did," Frampton said. "These fish need immediate action."

Environmentalists were deeply critical of the plan released yesterday, which calls for a broad range of federal actions to improve salmon habitat, reduce fishing, modify dam operations to help fish, and reform hatcheries.

"Where are the teeth, where are the specifics, where are the hard triggers to require dam breaching?" asked Chris Zimmer of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition in Seattle. "This is a total failure."

The coalition and 10 other citizen, tribal and environmental groups issued a statement calling the administration's plan a "death sentence" for salmon and "a plan for more planning," rather than a real solution to the salmon crisis.

The plan was no more popular with industry. The Columbia River Alliance, which represents industrial river users, called the recovery plan too costly and too vague, while still leaving a gun pointed at the dams.

"It appears (they) want Pacific Northwest citizens to pay some unknown amount of money for some unknown benefit for salmon," said Bruce Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance. "And if we don't they will call for breaching the four Lower Snake River dams."

The federal recovery plan is intended to prevent extinction and lead to the ultimate recovery of 12 species of salmon listed under the ESA throughout the Columbia Basin. The basin includes all of Washington, Oregon and Idaho and parts of Montana.

Both the plan and an accompanying biological opinion are still in draft form and will not be completed until the end of the year, after further comments from the public and scientists.

The biological opinion, required under the ESA, is intended to guide operation of the 29 federally owned dams in the Columbia Basin to enable recovery of protected salmon and steelhead.

The recovery plan calls for a status check at five, eight and 10 years to assess progress toward salmon recovery in three key areas: whether the plan is being funded and implemented; whether protected fish species are declining or rebounding; and whether physical characteristics of salmon habitat, such as water quality and quantity in streams, are improving or degrading.

A decline in the fish runs at any of those points could trigger a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service to request breaching the dams.

Congress would make the final decision.

The restoration plan would cost the Bonneville Power Administration alone anywhere from an estimated $430 million to $730 million a year. Frampton estimated additional spending by other federal agencies would be in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."

In summary, the basinwide recovery plan focuses on improvements in four key areas:

Habitat: Provide more water in streams for fish, remove passage barriers that block fish from good habitat, reduce sedimentation in streams, and rebuild buffers of vegetation on stream banks and rivers.

Hatcheries: Overhaul federally funded hatcheries to minimize the harm they do to wild salmon and improve survival rates of hatchery fish. Some hatcheries would be converted to "emergency rooms," used to breed and rear some of the rarest fish in captivity so they would not go extinct.

Fishing: Retain current limits on fishing that kills protected fish. Fishing would also be reduced through license buyouts and other approaches. Fishing could be expanded on abundant species if it could be done without killing protected fish they mingle with.

Dams: Continue barging young salmon downstream with no change other than to extend the barging season longer into the year. Trucking of young salmon would be reduced but not eliminated. Mechanical fixes would continue at the dams, with the intent of making them safer for salmon. However, not much further improvement in salmon survival is expected through those efforts.

Studies would also be initiated to work out the engineering of breaching the four Lower Snake River dams and to design a compensation plan for those economically damaged by breaching. The idea is to have the breach option ready to go if other efforts don't achieve salmon recovery.

But the political reality is far more complicated. In a statement released yesterday in response to the recovery plan, U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., vowed to introduce legislation to block spending of any kind for dam breaching.

Indeed, the entire recovery plan is subject to adequate funding from a Congress already skeptical of the billions of dollars spent on Columbia Basin salmon recovery, so far with disappointing results.

Lynda V. Mapes
Chorus of Boos Greets Salmon Strategy
Seattle Times Company, July 28, 2000

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