Make Salmon-saving Plan Doableby Editors
Op/Ed, The Oregonian, December 18, 2000
National Marine Fisheries Service's biological opinion
on salmon recovery should include attainable standards
When the National Marine Fisheries Service announced last week that it was delaying for at least another week the release of its plan to save Columbia River Basin salmon, the spin doctors were out in full force.
Advocates for breaching the four Snake River dams characterized the delay as good news -- giving the lame-duck Clinton administration a last chance to make dam breaching inevitable, by revising standards that would be impossible to meet.
That was just what opponents of dam breaching worried about: the White House trying to "hardwire" stricter language in the document so that 3-, 5- and 8-year evaluations could never meet performance standards, thus automatically triggering a decision to breach the dams.
Our advice to the purveyors of salmon doom and gloom: Just stop it. Take a breath from this divisive and seemingly unending dispute over dam breaching and give a chance to the agency's proposal, focusing on strategies to restore salmon habitat, reduce harvest and overhaul hatchery practices.
After reviewing the details of the agency's biological opinion, we see no devils in them. Not yet, anyway.
Those skeptics, including some members of Congress, who speculated this week that draconian language about breaching dams would be included to appease environmental groups may be surprised to learn that the base year from which the agency will measure salmon recovery improvement is 1980, not 1999. In other words, the increase in adult salmon returns in the Columbia the last few years, attributable in part to improvements in fish passage at the dams, will be taken into account in measuring whether the agency's plan to restore salmon runs, without breaching dams, is working.
And environmental groups who fear that a George W. Bush presidency will try to soften salmon recovery standards should take note that any effort to rewrite or edit this plan six months from now will be difficult to do if Northwest policymakers already have embarked on the strategies the plan proposes.
Northwest officials and the various advocacy groups should accept this plan and then move forward with it, to demonstrate to Congress and the new White House that the region is united in its effort to save the salmon.
To gain the confidence of the skeptics, salmon progress must be measured carefully, which means spending more money on improved fish-monitoring techniques. Indeed, the key to making progress is to find out as soon as we can if a particular strategy is succeeding or failing, and to be prepared to change course quickly to avoid wasting salmon dollars on failed strategies.
It shouldn't bother anybody seriously interested in saving endangered Northwest salmon that dam breaching remains an option, albeit an option of last resort. The federal Bonneville Power Administration, which would like to retain the energy from those four Snake River dams, doesn't fear the breaching option, because its biologists believe that the latest strategy will work.
We think it will work, too. But by encouraging Northwest citizens to do their part in helping restore streams where salmon spawn, keeping dam breaching on the table is a vital element in keeping the region's eye on the prize -- saving our salmon.
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