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Salmon Caught Between Feds and Locals

by Cassandra Profita
The Daily Astorian, October 25, 2006

North Coast experts question validity of latest approach to fishery recovery

A federal study of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River estuary calls for $500 million in recovery projects to improve populations over the next 25 years.

A group of stakeholders is being asked to fold the study into a plan for lower Columbia River salmon recovery, but several members of the group questioned whether it contradicted work that has already been done in the estuary at a meeting in Astoria Tuesday.

Two local stakeholders, Jim Bergeron and Tod Jones, expressed concerns that the federal plans would drown out local input on salmon recovery.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration developed the study, called the Columbia River Estuary Recovery Plan Module, with help from the lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership and consultants. The module looks at factors affecting salmon survival from the mouth of the river upstream to Bonneville Dam and prioritizes 23 management actions based on their benefits and feasibility. It also puts a price tag on needed projects.

Patty Dornbusch, NOAA recovery coordinator, asked the stakeholders gathered at the Guy Boyington Building in Astoria to endorse the module as part of the lower Columbia River salmon recovery plan, a document that is still in the works and should be drafted by March 2007. Earlier in the meeting, responding to a question, she said NOAA is under pressure to get salmon recovery plans done.

The stakeholders group includes representatives from local, state and federal government, nonprofits and private industry with expertise in forestry, agriculture, ports, conservation, recreation, fish and wildlife, chosen to guide the drafting of a plan for salmon recovery on the lower Columbia. The goal of the plan is boost salmon populations to the point where they can be taken off the Endangered Species Act list.

Some stakeholders questioned the need for the estuary module's federal data in light of state work on estuary topics and asked which agencies would take the lead in recovery actions. Some worried the projects advocated in the module would be counterproductive.

Dornbusch said NOAA brought the module to the group to get input, knowing it would need some modifications. So far, input from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration have been incorporated into the module, she said, but it has not undergone a public review process.

"The idea is to plug it into all Columbia River Basin recovery plans," she said. "They would go out for public comment together."

Jones, who operates Select Area Fisheries Enhancement net-pen fisheries in the estuary, said the module signaled a concern in his mind that there would be too much federal power involved in salmon recovery efforts and not enough local voice.

"What I'm seeing is fewer and fewer things are within our control to make significant changes," he said. "All the major changes have federal controls, the dredging, the predator habitat, operation of the dams, and two-thirds of the tributaries are on federal land."

Jones also said he still wonders how much a salmon recovery plan can accomplish.

"It is a daunting task to get to a recovery level - or even a viability level," he said.

During the presentation of the estuary module, Bergeron, a Port of Astoria commissioner and retired oceanographer, asked consultant Phil Trask whether the Columbia Estuary Study Taskforce was involved in producing the study.

Trask said the module "stole" some work from CREST but did not "directly" work toward the final product.

Bergeron said he thought CREST should have been at the presentation.

"When they were talking about the estuary model, they should have sent that information to CREST and made an invitation at least to the director to be there," he said.

Bergeron also made several comments on the contents of the module, criticizing the "best-cost" approach of the Army Corps of Engineers to dredging projects and questioning plans to fill areas of the estuary to create habitat. His comments generated little response.

"They're still sort of putting everything together for us to comment on in the end," said Bergeron. "It seems like as a member of the public you're either making comments too early or too late."

Dornbusch said some of the $500 million in estuary projects outlined in the NOAA plan are already under way, but many others would have to be funded out of state and federal budgets if they were to be implemented.

The module projects costs of $68 million to monitor the estuary for contaminants and restore contaminated sites, $57 million to adjust water flow for better transport of sediment, $51.2 million to identify and reduce pollution sources, $50 million to breach or lower dikes and levees, $32.85 million for protecting and restoring estuarine habitat and $25 million for changing the hydropower system.

Bruce McIntosh, the lower Columbia salmon recovery plan project manager from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said more data will be unveiled to the stakeholders group over the next few months, as it is developed.

When the salmon recovery plan is complete, stakeholders will be able to apply their knowledge of the region to modify and improve it before it goes out for public comment.

"You can put together the best plan in the world, but if it's not supported by the local area it goes on a shelf," he said.

Cassandra Profita
Salmon Caught Between Feds and Locals
The Daily Astorian, October 25, 2006

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