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Solution Needs Input From Many

by John Webster for the Editorial Board
Spokesman Review, November 23, 1999

Our View: Fisheries service has pointed the Northwest, appropriately,
toward a complex, multifaceted salmon recovery plan.

The federal government's draft outline of salmon recovery options for the Snake and Columbia river basin is as significant for what it did not propose, as for what it did.

It did not recommend that the region start down the road to the dismantling of its hydropower dams. After an intense look at various recovery options and the odds that they might work, federal agencies appear to be backing away from dam removal as a single, simple remedy.

Instead, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has challenged all of our region's inhabitants and interest groups to own up to their share of the responsibility for the decline of wild salmon runs -- and the strengthening of those runs.

In other words, the best solution will be complex. A complex solution does not lend itself to the simplistic, divisive, win-lose games of power politics, litigation and media melodrama. The making of a complex decision will require our region to settle on a collegial decision process, and that is the toughest challenge of all.

Meanwhile, by stepping back and taking a larger view, NMFS has presented us with a more accurate picture of the issue.

"The deterioration of the Columbia's once-numerous fish runs," says the document NMFS drafted with input from nine federal agencies, "can be traced to economic development of the basin." In other words, humans live here. That's the problem. It's also a solution, because humans change their activities, continually.

Development has hurt salmon, NMFS says, in each of four areas: habitat, harvest, hatcheries and hydropower. In each area change must occur for salmon to recover.

This is fair. Wild salmon do not spend their lives in the turbines or fish ladders of a dam. They hatch and spawn in a creek, often in farming or logging country. They spend several weeks traveling up and down rivers. They spend years in the ocean. Along the way they confront dams, predators, pollution, disease, competition from hatchery salmon, and the hooks and nets of sport, tribal and commercial fishing.

According to the most recent scientific projections, reform in only one area will not be enough. For example, while young salmon now survive passage through dams in greatly improved numbers, it's not clear how many die as a result of that experience, later. So, additional improvements in mid-river migration survival might not save the runs. Indeed, as soon as salmon emerge from the dams they face other hazards: The predator-infested, industry-polluted corridor from Portland to the ocean. Overfishing by Alaskans, Canadians and others. Ocean climate cycles that slash the salmon's food supply and attract unusual predators.

A remedy that works will require changes by all who jeopardize salmon. What changes? The public debate NMFS has invited may help, but debate is not a decision. Who is the fair, well-informed maker and enforcer of decisions -- regional in outlook, participative in style, and flexible enough to monitor results and refine the remedy as time goes by? One reason our region has had such a long struggle already is that it has not determined who can resolve it. So far, a balanced solution has seemed unlikely to come from any single agency, judge or even from Congress. Multiple agencies, acting in concert, will have to solve this one.

John Webster, for the Editorial Board
Solution Needs Input From Many
Spokesman Review, November 23, 1999

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