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Commentaries and editorials

Sen. Craig has Turned
His Back on Idaho's Salmon

by Editors
Idaho Statesman - July 3, 2005

Now's the time for Sen. Larry Craig to fight for Idaho's wild salmon.

Instead, our senior senator is fighting to kill the Fish Passage Center, the small federal agency that analyzes fish numbers.

Craig is also thinking of using the legislative process to override U.S. District Judge James Redden, a powerful advocate for salmon in desperate need of a champion.

Craig is picking the wrong fights. He is squandering the pull that comes with almost a quarter-century's experience in Congress and applying it to gamesmanship instead of leadership.

Craig should use his energy and influence to help Idahoans and the region negotiate solutions to the salmon issue.

Craig vs. the fish counters

In a move that's unwise at best, vindictive at worst, Craig and other senators want to kill funding for the Fish Passage Center. They've attached the idea to an energy spending bill heading to the Senate floor.

With a staff of 11 and an annual budget of $1.3 million, the Portland agency has the sensitive job of providing technical analysis on salmon and steelhead for federal agencies, states and tribes.

Craig believes the center is becoming "a tool of the environmental community," spokesman Mike Tracy said. For example, Tracy cites a June 14 memo center director Michele DeHart sent to a tribal fishing group. In it, DeHart says Redden's court-imposed strategy to help salmon -- spilling water from lower Snake and Columbia river dams, a move supported by environmentalists -- should continue unimpeded.

Tracy makes a reasonable point. Taking a position on the courtroom battle goes beyond providing technical services. But we think killing the center by choking off its funding is an overreaction.

Whose idea is this? On Monday, Tracy said the language was inserted by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the subcommittee handling the energy spending bill. On Friday, Tracy said the move had Domenici's blessing or it wouldn't be in his bill -- but he did say Craig was involved in drafting the language.

More significant than this inside baseball is what Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, thinks of the idea. "There is a great deal going on in the region at present regarding salmon and steelhead court rulings and the possibility of further court rulings to come," Crapo's office said in a statement. "In light of this much broader context, Sen. Crapo does not support, at this time, the rider cutting funding for the Fish Passage Center."

Crapo is right. Killing the center is an ill-timed idea when the feds, the states and the tribes need to know more about salmon, not less.

Craig vs. the judge

Craig may try to get Congress to overturn Redden's bold -- and correct -- ruling that tossed out the Bush administration's flawed salmon strategy.

It's important to remember what Redden said five weeks ago, and why it's so important for Idaho's wild salmon. He reminded the federal government that it is required under the Endangered Species Act to make sure Idaho salmon recover and not simply let the fish continue to teeter on the brink of extinction. Redden rejected a plan that would actually allow Snake River salmon migration numbers to drop until the next decade. He shot down the foolish notion that dams built since the 1960s are a natural component of rivers the fish have navigated for 10,000 years.

Redden is properly reading the Endangered Species Act and holding the federal government to it. Instead of standing with him, Craig might present a bill or an amendment to negate Redden's ruling. This legislation might simply say that Congress disagrees with Redden and believes the Bush salmon plan meets the Endangered Species Act, Craig spokesman Dan Whiting said. That wouldn't settle the debate, of course; it would only prove that Congress and the judge disagree. And its practical effect is limited. Congress is unlikely to do anything before the fall -- after water is spilled this summer to help young salmon migrate to the ocean.

Craig should spend his time accepting Redden's challenge to negotiate a regional solution. In throwing out the Bush plan, Redden told the Northwest to come up with something better. Finding a consensus will be difficult, and it will take years. Craig needs to be a part of that discussion.

Instead, he seems to want to use the legislative process to divide interest groups. His constituents and Idaho's wild salmon deserve better.

Sen. Craig has Turned His Back on Idaho's Salmon
Idaho Statesman, July 3, 2005

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