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Snake Fish Runs at Crucial Time, U.S. Paper Says

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian - November 16, 1999

Drastic action is needed if this region is to keep dams standing
and help salmon and steelhead trout survive, the report concludes

Snake River salmon and steelhead trout are unlikely to survive as species unless agencies and citizens in the Northwest take painful steps to save them, the federal government says in a document to be released today.

Snake River salmon could be saved without breaching dams, an action under consideration by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the report states. But saving salmon without breaching will require significant changes in human activity throughout the Columbia Basin, including reductions in fishing and stringent controls on logging, grazing and development.

"These analyses confirm that major changes must be made" if salmon are to be saved, says the document, obtained Monday by The Oregonian. "Making those changes will require the governments and peoples of the Pacific Northwest to confront tough choices."

The report is called the 4H paper, because it examines fish harvest, hatcheries, habitat and hydropower operations in the Northwest. The report's conclusions amount to issuing the region a tough choice: Either make the expensive, widespread changes that help salmon or lose the Snake River dams.

Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service, made the challenge explicit Monday. He said that either the Northwest states get serious about protecting the rivers and streams used by salmon -- their habitat -- or the fisheries service might be forced to recommend the dams be breached.

"This is decision time for the region," he said. "What we do will depend on what the states do."

Conservationists lauded the 4H paper for its frank assessment of the poor state of Columbia Basin salmon. But they criticized the federal government for not recommending that dams be breached or that federal land be better protected.

The 4H paper, at this point only partly complete, is drafted by nine federal agencies whose responsibilities include Columbia Basin salmon. The effort is led, however, by three agencies: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates federal dams; the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity generated at federal dams; and the National Marine Fisheries Service, responsible for salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

"I've got to give NMFS credit for saying the extinction risk is so strong that the status quo is simply not an option and for saying we need bold, prompt action," said Chris Zimmer, a spokesman for Save Our Wild Salmon, a Seattle-based conservation group.

"This is a wake up call to the region. What NMFS fails to do is deliver a plan that is bold and prompt."

Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the federal government needs to face up to the damage that dams wreak upon salmon, and also federal lands management that hurts fish.

The commission, representing four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia salmon, has called for the four dams to be breached. Sampson said the federal government has no right to suggest that salmon can be saved if tribal harvests are stopped.

"To let the federal government get themselves off the hook is wrong," Sampson said Monday. "It is unbelievable to me that they can put proposals on the table that don't even meet the law."

The 14-page document, scheduled for release in Portland, is a partial draft written after the fisheries service conducted an analysis of three of the 12 stocks of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. A complete 4H paper, which considers all 12 stocks, is to be released in mid-December.

Public hearings on the final document and others analyses will be held in January, February and March. The fisheries service will recommend in May whether the dams should be breached.

"This is to get the debate started," Gorman said. "Nobody knows what the response will be to the release of this paper and to the release of the full 4H paper."

by Jonathan Brinckman
Snake Fish Runs at Crucial Time, U.S. Paper Says
The Oregonian, November 16, 1999

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