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Salmon Tell Us
Good Times are Over

by Mark Trahant, Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - April 24, 2005

Most of us are taught from our first days walking that we should prepare for the unexpected.

We're told stories about how some animals save acorns, while others fritter their summer away until it's too late. As we grow older, these same instructions are applied to money. When times are good, we're told, we need to squirrel a little away.

But we Americans excel at ignoring these lessons.

The United States celebrated an unparalleled economic boom by spending (and borrowing) with abandon; we pretended like the good times would last forever.

It's as if none of the stories about nature is worth our effort. We must figure that we can make the cycle of plenty last forever.

But the bust always comes.

And now, another cycle is coming to an abrupt end.

Ocean conditions for salmon have been ideal for those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest. Salmon started to return in numbers that made it possible to believe this magnificent fish would escape extinction.

I grew up in Idaho and remember as a child when fish were plentiful. Then, as an adult, I watched the same fish nearly disappear from the tributaries of the Salmon River.

But that trend changed a few years ago because of those peculiar ocean conditions. I was able to take my children to an Idaho river and show them what a river looked like when it's packed full of salmon. I remember their faces when we stopped at a bridge and they saw dozens of salmon in the stream. Good times, then.

The good times seemed like they would last forever.

The Bush administration even wrote its salmon plan based on those notions of good times.

Last year, the federal salmon plan said times were so good that we could ignore the impact of dams. The dams were now to be thought of as just another feature along the Columbia and Snake rivers, a permanent part of the environment. After all, the fish were doing well enough, so it wasn't even worth considering any plan that required dam removal.

As a token of those good times, the salmon plan accorded the dams an essential license to kill some 90 percent of the salmon stocks.

"We don't need a judge to tell us the federal plan is a failure -- the fish just did," says Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association.

Good enough is over. We're now back in the extinction arena because the spring chinook run has nearly disappeared from the Columbia River. Projection for the salmon count at Bonneville Dam was about 250,000 fish -- half the size of the run in 2001. As of last week, only a couple thousand fish had been counted.

Along the river many tribal people count on this spring run for religious ceremonies.

"Some ceremonies have gone ahead with one -- or in one case, zero -- fish," says Mike Matylewich, a fisheries scientist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. At the Celilo Longhouse ceremony, the sponsors had to use frozen salmon to feed those who participated.

But the bigger question is what do we do now?

That all depends.

If you -- like the Bush administration -- believe that the dams are permanent and essential, then we ought to be doing everything else feasible to save salmon runs. That means higher electricity prices, less water for irrigation and an enormously costly budget management plan that will get us past extinction.

The other alternative, perhaps the less costly model, is the conversation about dismantling the dams, especially the four lower Snake River dams. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt argues that the dams could be deconstructed with a mitigation strategy -- one that protects commercial river users from economic harm. That's the cheaper alternative when you consider we've spent millions of dollars on salmon recovery only to be reminded again and again that we can't have both plentiful fish and permanent obstacles.

The dams are not essential to the Northwest; these objects are not our soul. But the dams could be the end of the cycle of plenty. Extinction is a sure way to break a cycle.

Mark Trahant is editor of the editorial page.
Salmon Tell Us Good Times are Over
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 24, 2005

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