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Failure of Ambition and Imagination

by Editorial Board
The Daily Astorian, February 18, 2010

If NOAA Fisheries isn't permitted to do its job, let's end the sham

During the Bush administration, it was routine to find crucial environmental agencies and strategies squashed flat as an opossum on I-5. In some distressing ways, life isn't so very different so far during the Obama years.

It's important to acknowledge that this administration doesn't share its predecessor's reflexive animosity toward science and responsible natural-resource management. But there are troubling signs that big money and corporate convenience are still prime considerations when it comes to key decisions in the Pacific Northwest.

The two most notorious current examples both involve NOAA Fisheries, which ultimatly reports to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Although he certainly racked up some environmental accomplishments in his eight years as Washington governor, Locke was strongly in favor of keeping Snake River dams in place.

Although he talked a good show on salmon, ultimately Locke was unwilling to take the political risk of offending or damaging the business prospects of industries that rely on federal water projects.

NOAA Fisheries, under Locke's control, has pussyfooted around the issue of Columbia salmon recovery like a jittery groom at a shotgun wedding. While the agency's refinements to the Bush salmon plan are not so empty as opponents allege, in no way are they the kind of bold actions that will convincingly alter the sad end game of the Pacific Northwest's "totem" creature.

This failure of ambition and imagination has drawn the ire of U.S. District Court Judge James Redden of Portland, who, like others immersed in salmon issues, had hoped for more. He has given the agency until Friday to come up with a plan that doesn't violate the Endangered Species Act. He warned officials that he will show "heightened skepticism" for any additional half-assed efforts.

NOAA Fisheries' rather embarrassing maneuvers to placate Judge Redden are mirrored by the decision not to appeal approval of the Bradwood Landing permits rubberstamped by the Federal Energy Regulatory Administration.

Although the states of Washington and Oregon, Columbia Riverkeepers and the Nez Perce Tribe are all still appealing FERC superficial approval process, NOAA Fisheries will now confine its inquiry to the much more limited question of whether the project threatens the survival of endangered salmon in the river.

All this really calls into question whether an important regulatory agency should be reporting to a White House cabinet officer whose mission it is to grow the economy at almost any cost. If the president and Congress made an explicit decision to make money trump the environment, so be it. We elected them, and we can un-elect them.

But this business of giving an agency only an appearance of objectivity is insulting. Either NOAA Fisheries should be permitted to do its job, or the whole sorry sham should be dispensed with.

Editorial Board
Failure of Ambition and Imagination
The Daily Astorian, February 18, 2010

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