Fed's Salmon Plan as Good as it Will Get
by Editorial Board
The Columbian, September 29, 2009
For a federal judge in Portland, it's go time.
U.S. District Judge James Redden has presided over nearly a decade of litigation on the federal government's plan to recover the Columbia River basin's 13 federally protected runs of salmon and steelhead.
He's rejected a Democratic administration's proposal and a Republican administration's proposal. Now he's faced with something of a hybrid - and a ticking clock.
Redden had held off ruling on the latest salmon plan, submitted last year, to give Obama administration officials time to review it. That review didn't go quite how environmentalists pressing the legal challenge had expected it would.
Earlier this month, Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator, proclaimed the science behind the plan solid. The Bush plan is now the Obama plan, with a few tweaks.
Those tweaks are not insignificant. The Obama administration revived the Clinton-era provision that put breaching four Snake River dams on the table if fish recovery goals weren't met. It also pledged to add millions more to the $1 billion the region already spends on Columbia Basin salmon recovery each year, and to ramp up research on how fish are responding.
Both moves seem intended to bolster the plan's chances with Redden. The judge has criticized the federal government in the past for relying on recovery measures that weren't "reasonably certain to occur" and for not developing contingency plans in the event stocks continue to decline.
The beefed-up Bush plan might yet win Redden's favor, but it hasn't won many fans among the parties to the lawsuit. Environmental groups, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe criticized the plan as too little, too late while their opponents blasted it for reigniting the debate over the dams.
Both sides are living in denial. No plausible plan can ignore the dams altogether. Neither will a White House concerned about carbon-neutral power - the Snake River dams generate enough to power all of Seattle - put dam breaching at the top of its list.
The plan embraced by the Obama administration is the best Redden's likely to get from any White House. It has a stronger commitment to getting habitat improvements and other remedial actions accomplished than the Clinton plan did, and it doesn't attempt to acquit the dams as the first Bush plan did.
Redden has said he has no desire to remand yet another salmon plan for yet another round of revision. That leaves him two options: Accept the Bush-come-Obama plan, or direct salmon recovery from the bench.
If any judge were to become the region's de facto salmon recovery czar, Redden - highly respected and knowledgeable about salmon recovery - would be the man for the job.
But the region should want for better than a court dictating how to balance power production against the needs of fish. The feds' latest plan is better than anything that's come before it, and it deserves a chance to prove itself.
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