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Economic and dam related articles

Better Legal Framework Needed
for Salmon Conservation

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, August 2003

Columbia River salmon conservation is -- and likely always will be -- paid for primarily by users of services provided by the Columbia Basin Project, always through increase in Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) electric rates, possibly through reduced availability of irrigation water, and river transportation.

The first Columbia River salmon hatchery was built in 1877. In 1938, the Mitchell Act did what was then possible to protect salmon while the Columbia River dams were built. That effort expanded in 1980 when the Northwest Power Planning Act authorized passing fisheries program costs to BPA ratepayers. Minimizing costs and economic burdens imposed on non-fisheries interests were integral goals of those programs.

Then came the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and environmental lawsuits. The latest -- National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service -- re-open talk of removing Snake River dams. Says Jan Hasselman, National Wildlife Federation attorney, "Northwest political leaders oppose dam removal because they think they can have salmon and dams. If they realize they must choose, they will choose salmon and Congress will follow their lead."

I doubt that. Dam removal finds little support, and much opposition, across the political spectrum.

Democratic President Bill Clinton and 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore avoided the issue. Republican George Bush condemned dam removal, as presidential candidate and later as president. Only Green Party candidate Ralph Nader endorsed the idea.

The pro-dam removal Salmon Planning Act, introduced in the House of Representatives, has over 80 (94 as of 8/18/3) co-sponsors, mostly Democrats. Virtually all represent Eastern, Midwestern and California constituencies. The bill's only Northwest supporter is its sponsor, Seattle Democrat Jim McDermott. Regional governors -- two Democrats, two Republicans -- recently called dam removal "divisive and polarizing."

Worse for the dam busters, the salmon are returning, nearly 2-million in 2001 (to the Columbia river), a record since counting began (1938). Though most are hatchery fish, gains are spread widely, including wild fish and ESA-listed populations. Ocean conditions always cause cycles; however, consistent improvement since 1997 also suggests long-term progress.

Improved dam design and operation have substantially reduced salmon mortality. In most cases, barging juvenile salmon around the dams further increases total (river plus ocean) survival. Fisheries scientists are using new style "conservation hatcheries" to supplement wild (in-stream spawning) salmon. That means more wild fish, and the ability to restore locally extinct populations, using genetically comparable broodstock from nearby streams. (Review recent accomplishments on the Northwest Power Planning Council [NWPPC] Web site at

Environmentalists condemn such "technological fixes," claiming salmon can only survive in free flowing rivers like those in which they evolved.

Nonsense! Salmon are adaptive, particularly with man's help. Although they aren't native to the Southern Hemisphere, introduced salmon now navigate the South Pacific and spawn in Chile and New Zealand. Columbia River fall chinook salmon were introduced into North Idaho's Coeur d'Alene basin, where they spawn in the rivers and grow in Lake Coeur d'Alene instead of the ocean. Spring chinook were successfully resorted to the Clearwater River, where they maintain in-stream spawning populations upstream from the notorious Snake River dams.

Unfortunately, some ESA provisions do support environmentalists who say compliance eventually requires restoring pre-development environmental conditions. One provision calls for preserving the ecosystems upon which an endangered species depend, i.e. not preserving the species to live under "artificial" conditions. Another provision defines conservation as bringing the species to a condition where further ESA-directed action is not required, possibly calling into question indefinite use of measures like hatchery supplementation and barge transportation, regardless of how many salmon those measures save or produce.

Not surprisingly, some ESA administrators and supporters see the law primarily as a habitat protection and restoration device. Procedures for implementing ESA also typically ignore costs and economic burdens. Whatever must be done to "save the species" -- meaning protect or restore its habitat -- must be done, regardless of cost. Follow links in the NWPPC Web site to read the law and its interpretation by environmental groups involved with salmon.

Those provisions make it a short step to concluding the ESA compliance requires turning the Columbia back into a river; and thus to proposals like removing Snake River Dams, permanently lowering the John Day reservoir, and operating other dams to mimic pre-dam conditions. Never mind that technology -- barging, conservation hatcheries, etc. -- can integrate salmon into the existing (industrial) river system, while placing far fewer economic burdens on river users.

The latest lawsuit warns us that environmentalist will press ESA's back-to-nature ideology to the limit, irrespective of political reality, or the scientific/technological potential of alternative salmon conservation strategies. They will not shrink from inflicting pain to get their way. After years of disputes, environmentalists sued to apply ESA to Klamath Basin salmon and suckers. As a result, 1400 farmers lost their irrigation water during most of the 2001 growing season.

To forestall similar events, we need a better legal framework for salmon conservation. Don't count on congressional ESA reform. A more interesting possibility is the cabinet level Endangered Species Committee -- called the God Squad -- provided by the current law.

God Squad members are political appointees. Unlike ESA administrators, they are charged with considering the whole public interest in species preservation, including economic burdens. That charge not only shapes their decisions with common sense, but also makes them harder to challenge in court. During the Bush administration -- and perhaps beyond -- it will be difficult for environmentalists to oppose God Squad decisions, though they will raise a political ruckus about any they dislike.

The salmon plan provides for God Squad referral. If ESA compliance can not be otherwise achieved, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) can seek congressional authority for dam removal. Under current federal leadership that request will surely fail. Then, NMFS can turn the matter over to the God Squad, possibly resulting in exemption of Columbia River salmon from ESA's provisions.

Only federal bureaucrats must think in ESA's terms. We can view exemption as progress; returning control to state, federal and tribal wildlife scientists. They conserved and managed Columbia River salmon before ESA, and will always do the real work, regardless of the legal framework.

Those are the same people who manage our other natural resources. Go fishing, hunting, take a nature walk or visit a Columbia River fish ladder. Those benefits did not come naturally. You are enjoying the products of active human intervention, using modern technology and informed by science and wildlife management experience. You are also seeing what is possible when resource managers are free from legally sanctioned ideology that says the environmental past is always better than the present, or possible future.

When President Bush campaigned in the Northwest, he promised to help reconcile salmon conservation with other Columbia River uses. In their own ways all the Northwest's elected leaders echo that sentiment. They and the president's senior fisheries and environmental appointees can look beyond ESA's ideological blinders.

Let's challenge them to build a better legal framework for salmon conservation.

* An earlier version of this article appeared in Spokane's Spokesman-Review newspaper.

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
Better Legal Framework Needed for Salmon Conservation
Wheat Life - August 2003

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