Obama Follows Bush on Salmon Recoveryby William Yardley
The New York Times, September 15, 2009
SEATTLE -- In its first major effort to address the plight of endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the Obama administration on Tuesday affirmed basic elements of a recovery plan set forth last year by the Bush administration.
The announcement angered critics of federal conservation policies, who said the Bush plan did not go far enough in improving fish habitats in the Columbia River basin or water levels in rivers for migrating fish and did not take immediate action to explore whether to remove four dams on the lower Snake River.
Thirteen species of salmon are listed as endangered or threatened, and critics say the new Obama plan, like the Bush one, is too ready to accept only slight gains in their populations, a potential violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Obama administration officials said that while the plan affirmed the scientific and legal basis of the Bush approach, it included revisions that would hasten and expand efforts to improve habitats, monitor any effects of climate change and put in place contingency plans should fish populations "decline significantly."
The Obama plan leaves open as "a last resort" the possibility of removing dams if certain fish populations decline to historic lows, but even then, critics say, the decision would depend on a multiyear study of whether removing dams would improve salmon populations.
The issue of dam removal has become more complicated as the Obama administration seeks ways to produce clean energy. The dams help provide low-cost hydroelectric power to the region but block salmon and steelhead trout from reaching their historic spawning areas.
"It's clear that dams provide good clean energy," said Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversaw the review of the Bush plan. "They allow integration of wind into the grid. It's not clear what impact their removal would have on salmon, and we believe that removal of them is not necessary in the short term. We want to give these other actions a chance to work."
Judge James A. Redden of Federal District Court in Oregon is presiding over a legal challenge to federal recovery policies brought by environmentalists, fishermen, the Nez Perce Indian tribe and the State of Oregon.
Judge Redden has rejected two federal plans for restoring salmon in the Columbia basin, one by the Clinton administration and an earlier plan by the Bush administration. He is expected to decide whether to accept the Obama plan within the next several weeks.
Even as some criticized the Obama plan as not going far enough, others said it went too far.
"The extremists who brought this lawsuit may be critical about this plan because dam removal wasn't delivered on a silver platter with promises of wrecking balls arriving next week, but they got what they wanted from the Obama administration, and they'll try and convince Judge Redden to give them even more," said Representative Doc Hastings, a Republican who represents part of eastern Washington.
Mike Carrier, the natural resources policy director for Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski of Oregon, a Democrat, said the Obama administration had "wisely" chosen to reverse some of the Bush administration's environmental policies but in the case of salmon recovery was "fundamentally still embracing" the Bush approach.
Nicole Cordan, the policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition that includes many of the plaintiffs in the case, said, "Yes, dam breaching is on the table, but the table is over the river and through the woods and 1,000 miles away."
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