Feds Offer Theirby Barry Espenson
Federal officials offered scientific observations, but little direction, this week as they headed for a winter-long gauntlet of public hearings over what is the best course for Columbia River Basin fish and wildlife recovery planning.
Mid-December is expected to bring a draft Corps of Engineers feasibility study on Lower Snake River dam breaching and other salmon passage alternatives. Planned for release at the same time is a draft "federal caucus" Four-H paper aimed at weighing habitat improvement, hatchery activities and fish harvest -- as well as hydrosystem improvements -- as components of a comprehensive recovery plan.
But participants in a Portland press conference were told that in neither case will the federal agencies say what recovery strategy fits the region best -- at least not yet.
"There's no slam dunk on either side," Col. Eric Mogren said of the alternatives being considered by the Corps in its Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study and environmental impact statement.
Because the biological and economic analysis of the study alternatives is producing a number of close calls, the Corps will withhold judgment in a draft study and EIS scheduled for release Dec. 17.
The draft "will not have a preferred alternative," said Mogren, the Corps divisional deputy commander. A final version is expected to be completed in May following a winter of public meetings. The study focuses on three hydrosystem alternatives for improving passage -- the status quo, breaching or major system improvements.
Mogren, National Marine Fisheries Service regional director Will Stelle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional chief Ann Badgley and Bonneville Power Administration administrator Judi Johansen gathered in Portland Tuesday to brief the media and interested public on a parallel process.
The event marked the official public release of the federal caucus "Four H" working paper. The 16-page document outlines options for manipulating each of the four H's and offered sample combinations of the proposed strategies -- called "integrated alternatives."
Stelle, who led the discussion, emphasized throughout that the working paper contained solid options to consider -- but not necessarily all of the options. The document also includes samples that are intended to be just that -- samples of a broad range of strategies. The caucus at this point does not have a preferred alternative, Stelle said.
"This paper was written with two major goals in mind: to lay out the basic options for salmon recovery and to stimulate a constructive debate among the governments and the people of the region on those options," Stelle said.
Stelle also emphasized that the region must quickly rally to the cause. Several of the region's salmon populations face significant risk of extinction according to recent results from NMFS' Cumulative Risk Initiative analyses of Snake River populations.
"The likelihood of these species going extinction is very real," Stelle said.
The causes are many and "common sense tells us that there is not a single solution," Stelle said.
The working paper's recovery plan goals include: conserving species and the ecosystems they inhabit, assuring tribal fishing rights, balancing the needs of other species and minimizing the effects on humans.
The paper outlines options for each of the Four H's that range from modest to the more drastic initiatives.
For example the habitat options, which NMFS' CRI says has high potential for triggering recovery success, range from a moderate increase in efforts in the arenas federal agencies control to significantly increased participation by states, tribes and local and federal entities.
The most aggressive habitat option outlined requires increased federal agency regulatory power through the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts.
"This action would be implemented if the region cannot develop a coordinated plan with state and local governments," the working paper reads.
The paper, and Stelle, emphasized that significant state and local commitment will be required to implement a comprehensive plan.
The sample "integrated alternatives" cover a wide range:
"Some of them are not implementable by federal agencies," Stelle said. Breaching, for one, would require congressional approval.
The sample alternatives in the working paper are intended to provoke thought -- about the potential tradeoffs and perhaps about different combinations of the strategy options.
It was NMFS' intent, though its CRI analysis and analysis produced by PATH, to "provide the best scientific information we can muster about what those choices mean," Stelle said. The goal is a "best mix of options" to exact salmon recovery.
Stelle invited the region's state and local officials and its residents to "mix and match among those choices" listed in the working paper, or come up with their options to add to the mix.
And different management choices can bring different responses from different species of fish. For Snake River fall chinook, both PATH and CRI say that dam breaching alone would promote recovery (or reduce the risk of extinction). That's because they spawn and rear in the mainstem now engulfed by reservoirs. NMFS' literature also says sharp harvest reductions could bring Snake River fall chinook recovery.
The two analytical models are worlds apart on Snake River spring/summer chinook. PATH, in analysis incorporated by NMFS in its Anadromous Fish Appendix to the Corps feasibility study, says that breaching is the biological option most likely to recover the stocks.
"The CRI does not. The CRI says that dam breaching may not be necessary," Stelle said. It says the spring/summer chinook could best be lifted from the brink of extinction though improvements in their survival in their first year of life in freshwater and in the estuary, possibly through habitat and hatchery actions.
The region must decide if those types of actions are achievable or not.
"If we can get them, that's where to go," Stelle said. Though investments in habitat and hatchery practices may be perceived now as a favored direction, hydropower choices, including breaching, remain subject of analysis.
"We will certainly not be back sliding," Stelle said, though breaching is a "decision ultimately for Congress."
The CRI analysis says that two of the stocks face a 10 percent risk of reaching quasi extinction within 10 years.
The federal caucus intends to produce a draft Four-H paper in December and a final paper in May.
Beginning in December, the federal agencies will be asking for public comment on the report and the options it presents. In January, February and March public meetings will be scheduled to discuss the Four-H paper, draft feasibility study and other documents.
The nine agencies involve include NMFS, the Corps, BPA, the USFWS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service.
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