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Report Calls Breaching Good for Fish

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, December 17, 1999

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to announce today that its scientists believe breaching the lower four Snake River dams will provide the most benefit to the most fish species, an agency official confirmed Thursday.

Faced with three other options to restore federally protected salmon and steelhead, the agency says dam breaching would work best in an appendix to a monumental environmental impact statement being released in Portland this morning by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Bill Shake, assistant regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is not taking a policy position about what should happen to the dams, but rather is saying which option science shows would provide the most benefits to the region's fish and wildlife species.

He said the agency provided the recommendation under the direction of a decades-old act designed to make sure fish and wildlife are considered in federal plans. And he emphasized biological needs must be balanced with other significant issues such as the social and economic effects of dam breaching.

"The real take-home message is that it's an advisory report," Shake said. "The Corps is not required to implement any recommendations that are found in this draft ... (but) they do have to respond to us."

The Fish and Wildlife Service document has been in the works for more than two years and been reviewed by several other agencies, but this is the first time the agency has selected a preferred action.

The importance of the opinion spurred debate Thursday after the American Rivers environmental group learned about the report and presented it to the press in Washington, D.C. American Rivers favors dam breaching.

"This is the first time where we have really seen the Fish and Wildlife Service perspective independent of the other federal agencies," said Rob Masonis, with American Rivers in Seattle. "I think it is going to garner a lot of attention."

But Bruce Lovelin at the Columbia River Alliance, a group of river users based in Portland, questioned the importance of the Fish and Wildlife Service's opinion.

"They are not the ones making the decision here," he said.

"National Marine Fisheries Service (officials) ... are the ones charged with recovery and they are telling us they are unable to come up with an answer right now."

That conflict also has the attention of Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Based on what he's seen so far, "You will have one federal agency whose science staff is suggesting that dam removal may not be necessary, and another ... being very clear that dam removal is the only option."

The Fish and Wildlife Service's document is just a thin slice of a great federal document dump that occurs today, when four important pieces of the regional fish debate will be released.

Several thousand pages of river and fish information will be unveiled in what promises to be a large and emotionally charged affair in Portland.

"It's going to be quite a wild event ... quite a circus," Hudson said.

He's expecting the meeting to provide for "a lot of theatrics from all groups."

Here's what federal agencies are expected to cover:

-- The Corps' environmental review of dam removal. Indications Thursday were that the current draft has been substantially changed from earlier drafts.

This report will include 22 appendices, including the one from the Fish and Wildlife Service and another from NMFS about salmon and steelhead.

That document - referred to as the A-Fish Appendix - also has been greatly modified from earlier versions that emphasized the uncertainty of dam breaching.

"I think there will be some science in that document to sink our teeth into," said Scott Bosse, with Idaho Rivers United in Boise.

He said he didn't know what the revised A-Fish Appendix says, but he objected to NMFS using an in-house science team for the rewrite rather than the regional science team that's been studying the issue for years.

"It's really like they staged a silent coup over the summer and now the states and the tribes and the other federal agencies are looking from the outside in," he said.

The Corps document will not include a recommendation about what to do with the dams.

Agency officials said they want to hear public comments before making a recommendation.

-- NMFS' revised and renamed All H paper. This document shows trade-offs the region faces between hydropower, habitat, hatcheries and harvest if salmon and steelhead are to be revived.

Changes largely will be the inclusion of scientific analysis that shows how the agency reached its conclusions in mid-November.

-- A "biological assessment" by federal agencies of how the hydroelectric system is run. It is the preliminary document to the Biological Opinion that NMFS uses to balance hydropower and fish needs in the river system.

"It's going to focus the debate," Masonis said of the master plan.

-- A hearing schedule for the region to sound off about all the information being handed out. Even that has turned political, with Alaska and Idaho politicians demanding more hearings in their states.

Their fear is that hearings mostly in Oregon and Washington won't show the full economic impact of Snake River salmon recovery on the region.

Mike Lee
Report Calls Breaching Good for Fish
Tri-City Herald, December 17, 1999

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