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Corps Will Not Push Fish Plan

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, November 21, 1999

Draft salmon study won't pick a choice

People holding their breath while waiting for a federal recommendation on breaching Snake River dams may turn blue before they get an answer.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now says an early draft of a $20 million study it's conducting won't include a recommendation, as had been expected.

The corps' environmental impact statement looks at three options for operating the four dams in Washington: making no changes; making major changes; or breaching the dams as a salmon-saving strategy. A draft of the study is scheduled for release next month.

At hearings throughout the Inland Northwest last year, corps officials repeatedly said the draft would recommend one of the three options. That would give area residents plenty to talk about during hearings scheduled for early next year.

The hearings are still planned, but the Corps of Engineers won't recommend a course of action until they're over, said Col. Eric Mogren, the agency's regional deputy director. There may be more hearings after a recommendation is made, probably later next year, Mogren said.

Ultimately, the corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service must make a recommendation to Congress. As part of a 1994 court settlement, the Fisheries Service agreed to come up with a long-range plan for saving endangered Snake River salmon by the end of this year; the plan will now be at least a year late, leaving the federal agency vulnerable to a legal challenge.

"We'd rather see (the Fisheries Service) correct the problem than have to take them to court," said Todd True, an attorney with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Portland. Every delay brings the salmon a step closer to extinction, True said.

The Fisheries Service last week released an early draft of a long-awaited study of habitat, hatcheries, hydroelectric dams and salmon harvest. But that so-called "Four-H" working paper shed little light on what the agency might ultimately recommend to Congress.

The decision to delay a corps recommendation was made by the assistant Secretary of the Army for civil works, Joseph Westphal. Mogren said Westphal made the decision after conferring with regional corps officials who said the science on dam-breaching is still inconclusive.

"Our position all along was that if we had reasonable justification for having a position, we would have one" in the draft document, Mogren said.

Mogren said Westphal's decision will give the corps and Northwest residents time to digest the "new science" the National Marine Fisheries Service is using to analyze the issue.

Dam-breaching has become a contentious political issue. Farm groups and most politicians say it would ruin the regional economy by ending barging that relies on the dams' locks. Many scientists who have studied the issue say it is the most certain way to save salmon.

Conservation groups contend breaching, which would cost an estimated $1 billion, could be the cheapest way to save the fish and curtail salmon-saving efforts that now cost about $500 million a year, by some estimates.

The corps' delay is drawing fire from people on both sides of the debate. Some say it smacks of politics -- a suspicion fed by the fact that Westphal is a political appointee who was nominated by President Clinton.

Michelle DeHart, director of the Fish Passage Center, contends the bulk of the scientific evidence supports breaching or equally radical solutions like strict restrictions on grazing, logging and irrigation. That's something politicians wouldn't want to hear before the November 2000 elections, she said.

"What's missing here is not biology, it's courage," said DeHart, whose agency is comprised of biologists from Northwest states and tribes with treaty fishing rights. "It's all about standing around, looking for someone else to take the lead."

Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, contends there is little scientific support for breaching. That's news Democrats wouldn't want to break to environmentalists before the election, said Lovelin, who plans to ask the Northwest congressional delegation to investigate the corps' delay.

"This is a big damn deal," he said. "I almost fell off my chair when I heard about it."

Mogren denied the delay is political.

"There's been absolutely nobody at any level of the administration that's been trying to dictate this decision," he said.

The congressional investigation Lovelin desires isn't likely to happen, if the response of Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is any indication.

According to staff, both senators have praised the corps for the delay, saying they hope it means Northwest residents will have a greater say in any decision about the dams.

Dan Hansen
Corps Will Not Push Fish Plan
Spokesman Review, November 21, 1999

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