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Commentaries and editorials

The Future of Fish

by Robert Speer
Boise Weekly, December 30, 1999

This was the year when the solution to the problem of declining salmon in the Lower Snake River was to have been determined, but -- politics and government bureaucracies being what they are -- it didn't happen.

Instead, by the end of the year only one federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had made a choice as to the best remedy -- breaching four dams in eastern Washington and restoring a free-flowing river there.

But the FWS is only one of the nine federal agencies with involvement in the Columbia River Basin, so its choice doesn't really count. And the nine agencies, working collectively as the Federal Caucus, chose not to choose.

Instead, on Dec. 17 the caucus released a report outlining the major alternative solutions and calling for further studies and regional debate on the choices. The group expects to make a final recommendation by May of 2000.

If the choic is not to breach, then the group likely will recommend a combination of other remedies, including improving fish habitat, augmenting water flow in the river, cutting back on the harvesting of fish and improving the current barging system around the dams.

The report pleased a few people. Environmentalists were upset by the delay, saying the salmon and steelhead fisheries don't have much time left. Most Northwest fisheries biologists support dam breaching as the best alternative, and most environmental groups share that view.

All of the choices, in fact, are costly to some group or another. Increasing water flow through the Snake River could cost farmers up to another 1 million acre-feet of irrigation water and take thousands of acres of land out of production; breaching the dams would destroy the barging industry on the river, cost the loss of some irrigation water, and eliminate a source of electricity sufficient to power Seattle; required habitat improvements could limit logging and grazing operations; and harvest cutbacks would affect the fishing industry as well as Indian tribes, which have treaty rights to the fish and have threatened to take the issue to court.

All year long, these choices, and the political shuffling and positioning that come with them, were constantly in the forefront of the news in Idaho. All of the state's political leaders are opposed to breaching, while all of its major environmental and sportsmen's groups favor it.

The fish are commonly referred to as a "historical and cultural icon" of the Northwest, but of course they are much more than that. They are marvelously complex species whose DNA has evolved over millions of years and an integral part of the ecosystem on which many other species, from osprey and bears to eagles and yes, human beings, depend.

Looking to 2000: The first five months of the year will be crucial. Expect passionate, politicized region-wide debate on the issue leading up to a final decision in May or June. Most likely this will become a presidential campaign issue.

Robert Speer
The Future of Fish
Boise Weekly, December 30, 1999

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