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Groups Criticize Decision on Dams

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, April 28, 2000

Environmentalists say putting off breaching will hurt salmon,
and industry fears the government will revisit the issue

Both sides in the region's fiercest environmental debate are displeased at the surprise disclosure by the federal government's leading salmon agency that it plans to leave Snake River dams in place while it gauges the success of other fish recovery efforts.

Will Stelle, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Thursday that the sweeping recovery plan being developed for all 12 stocks of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin will not call for the immediate removal of the dams. A day earlier, he had disclosed that the plan, still in the writing and awaiting Clinton administration approval, would leave dams in place.

The agency's plan will call for vigorous efforts to protect streams used by spawning salmon and an intense program to gauge the recovery of salmon. If salmon numbers do not rebound, Stelle said Thursday, "the fall back, at least for the Snake River stocks, is the Snake River dam removal option." Stelle said the fisheries service has not decided whether the recovery effort would remain in place for five or 10 years.

Criticism was harshest from conservationists who are waging an all-out campaign for dam breaching. If Snake River dams are not breached, they say, it will be impossible to save Idaho salmon and steelhead. They said dam removal should be an immediate proposal, not a fall back if other measures fail.

"In the end, the dams are going to have to come out; it's inevitable," said Heather Weiner, an attorney with the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. "If we wait for another five or 10 years, it will be too late for salmon."

Said Nicole Cordan of Seattle-based Save Our Wild Salmon: "Putting this decision off for five to 10 years is a leadership failure, it is illegal, and it will cause further suffering for fishing families and continued uncertainty for the entire Northwest."

Industry representatives were displeased for different reasons.

Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, said the fisheries service should rule out the idea of breaching Snake River dams. He said breaching would have huge economic costs and questionable benefits to salmon. Lovelin favors using trucks and barges to get young salmon past the dams on their way to the ocean.

"We've dodged the bullet for now but agreed to looking at it again in five to 10 years," Lovelin said. Thursday. "Over the past five years, there has been this economic dark cloud hanging over these communities that depend on dams. It has not been lifted."

James Buchal, a Portland attorney who opposes dam breaching, called the fisheries service plan a transparent effort to put off breaching until it has more support in Congress. He said monitoring standards will be set in such a way that guarantees the case for breaching.

Stelle said the fisheries service is seeking to develop an overall plan to help the four populations of salmon and steelhead in the Snake River as well as eight other stocks in the Columbia Basin. Stelle said some of those fish, particularly chinook and steelhead that spawn in the upper Columbia River, are at greater danger of extinction than Snake River fish.

"We had been arguing till we are blue in the face that if a strategy is going to effective it must be comprehensive," Stelle said. The agency's plan will be mapped out in two draft documents scheduled to be released May 22. One, a prescription for the operation of the federal hydrosystem, is required under the Endangered Species Act. The other, called the "All H" paper, examines the role of hydropower, habitat, hatcheries and salmon harvest as they relate to salmon health.

Both plans will include measures that will be used to gauge their success, Stelle said. Biological "triggers" will be set that will require more onerous steps -- such as breaching of dams -- if targets are not met. Stelle said the fisheries service will ask the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the recovery plan and the performance measures.

Jonathan Brinckman
Groups Criticize Decision on Dams
The Oregonian, April 28, 2000

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