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Commentaries and editorials

Federal Salmon-Protection Rules Keep Fish in Peril

by Michael Rossotto and Patti Goldman, Guest Columnists
Opinion, Seattle Times - August 9, 2000

The Endangered Species Act reflects a remarkable and visionary decision--Americans do not want to live or grow in ways that cause the extinction of the creatures with whom we share this planet. Once a species has declined to the point where it may become extinct, science, not politics, must be the check on activities that could wipe out that species.

Tragically, in its recently issued conservation rules for threatened salmon and steelhead, the federal government has switched these priorities and given its stamp of approval to political solutions that defy science and do not ensure the recovery of these magnificent fish.

The federal rules, developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), make it illegal for anyone to "take"--that is to actually kill or injure--salmon, including by destroying their habitat. We applaud this part of the rules.

Unfortunately, the rules also carve out numerous exemptions for activities under state and local government programs. Some of these activities, such as building and logging near streams, can be extremely harmful to salmon. Two of the exemptions are particularly problematic--a broad exemption for new development that conforms with plans developed by local governments, and an exemption for the politically inspired Forests and Fish Report that will govern logging on over eight million acres of timberland in this state.

Regarding local development plans, the rules propose only that the plans address a list of a dozen factors contributing to salmon declines. Rather than establish specific standards, NMFS will negotiate what is "adequately protective" with each local government. This approach provides little guidance to anyone and will subject NMFS to intense political pressure to play "Let's Make a Deal" to approve local plans, regardless of their scientific merit or long-term prospect for restoring salmon.

One need look no further than the exemption for Washington state's new logging rules--the Forests and Fish Report--to see how politics will trump science under NMFS' approach. Negotiated by timber-industry lawyers and political appointees, the Forests and Fish deal earned the timber industry a tax break and other sweeteners estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion over the life of the deal. Yet, virtually every independent scientist who has studied the Report has come to the same conclusion: The Forests and Fish Report is a political compromise that ignores the best science and will not recover the salmon.

At the time the Forests and Fish Report was being debated by the Legislature, a group of 28 leading scientists wrote Gov. Gary Locke to express their alarm that the Report "deviates substantially from the findings of readily available scientific literature."

After the Legislature adopted the report over environmentalists' objections, a review jointly administered by the American Fisheries Society's Western Division and the Northwest Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration concluded that "the cumulative effect of the habitat changes allowed by the report will be a decreased likelihood of survival for threatened salmonid species." The state's Independent Science Panel, authorized by the Legislature and appointed by the governor, has referred to the report as "a negotiated accommodation."

And internal government documents show that NMFS' own scientists repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of science supporting the Forests and Fish Report and complained that NMFS was "putting the cart before the horse" by negotiating a deal and then charging the scientists with finding "evidence to support a conclusion that had already been made."

Given the dubious deal-making and lack of scientific credibility behind the Forests and Fish Report, every citizen who cares about salmon should be deeply concerned about the kind of political compromises that will carry the day under the new federal rules. Conservation groups strongly support state and local initiatives to restore salmon, but unless those initiatives are based on sound science, they leave us playing Lotto with our children's natural heritage. NMFS' approach leaves our salmon and steelhead in peril and fails to provide the guidance needed to help state and local government plan for our region's continued prosperity and quality of life.

To achieve true protection based on science and not politics, a coalition of environmental and fishing organizations has announced our intent to sue NMFS if the rule remains unchanged. Not only is this lawsuit not premature, as suggested in a recent Seattle Times editorial ("Salmon-protection rules tailored by local reality," June 26), it is vital to both the survival of the salmon and the prosperity of the region. We believe the public, and the law, demand that rules to protect salmon from logging and development be based on science, not politics, and that these rules achieve recovery of our salmon. The residents of the Northwest--salmon and human--deserve no less.

Michael Rossotto is the Legal Program director for the Washington Environmental Council
Patti Goldman is the managing attorney of the Northwest Office of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund
Federal Salmon-Protection Rules Keep Fish in Peril
Opinion, Seattle Times Company, August 9, 2000

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