Gaps Seen in NW Fish Planningby Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, September 16, 2001
Despite years of planning and an untold amount of money spent, the Northwest still does not have a cohesive salmon recovery plan and patience is wearing thin.
A recent independent audit highlighted major gaps in the region's four main fish recovery documents, saying that even taken together the plans are not highly likely to reach their goal.
"I don't see a process on the river to get us there," agreed Curt Smitch, a top natural resources adviser to Gov. Gary Locke.
"We don't have any way to get closure in the region right now, so we end up with endless collaborative processes to talk about more stuff," Smitch said. "But we don't see where stuff is going to happen on the ground ... through this mega federal planning process."
That lack of confidence reflects frustrations among landowners and local government officials with the convoluted and politically complex salmon recovery process. And there are fears the public could become increasingly apathetic or antagonistic toward salmon recovery without strong leadership and definable goals.
Such skepticism was at least partially validated in late August in a lengthy report by the region's Independent Scientific Advisory Board. The combined efforts of the National Marine Fisheries Service, four Northwest governors and the Northwest Power Planning Council "may not have the collective strength to serve as a robust blueprint" for Columbia Basin salmon recovery, the panel said.
While commending recent efforts to define salmon recovery challenges and to create an ecosystem approach to salmon recovery, the panel said the "existing documents collectively fall short."
"There is no doubt that the proposed strategies would result in some beneficial results for salmon," said the report. "But the status of many stocks has become very grave."
Among the problems highlighted in the existing approach are insufficient data, gaps in the conceptual approach and problems integrating programs and implementing recovery actions. "Fully implementing the proposed actions would require a level of cooperation that has never before been achieved," said the review panel.
The panel's perspective generally matches a long-running theme of environmental groups.
"It suggests that we continue not to have a focused strategy that has real live timelines, milestones, budgets and who is doing what," said Tim Stearns at the National Wildlife Federation. "My hope is that ... this report becomes a wake-up call, but my fear is that the reaction is just going to be more planning."
To make matters worse, the Northwest division of the National Marine Fisheries Service has been without a permanent administrator for the last nine months while the Bush administration figured out who should lead its efforts in the Northwest.
That has slowed processes that weren't necessarily moving quickly under former President Clinton and has left major questions unanswered.
For instance, NMFS hasn't set specific recovery goals for fish species across Northwest river basins. Nor has it created a clear policy how hatchery fish can be used to help wild runs, one of the foundational elements of salmon recovery.
And the question of how to accommodate salmon runs with demands of an increasing number of power-consuming residents has hardly been addressed, the review panel said.
"We'd like to see (NMFS) step up and take responsibility even if we do not like some of the things they say," Smitch said, noting Locke still is hoping the Bush administration appoints a high-level Northwest salmon coordinator in Washington, D.C.
Bob Lohn, incoming regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, agreed Wednesday that his agency faces several pressing demands but said he is ready to take up the challenge.
"I see our No. 1 job being recovery of salmon runs ... that these plans and programs really do get integrated in a comprehensive way," said Lohn, who will be leaving his post as the fish and wildlife director at the Northwest Power Planning Council.
"I really intend that NMFS be able to give clear answers raised by the governors," Lohn said.
He said one of his top priorities will be to create "clear goals" for the number of fish that must return to specific river basins. "Setting these targets will need to happen very soon," he said, noting he'd already talked with NMFS staff about the need for hard numbers.
"Many of the landowners are more than willing to do the right thing, but they need to know if they do the right thing that (will) be enough," Lohn said.
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