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Governor Threatens Suit Over Salmon

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, January 15, 2005

Oregon's chief executive tells the Bush administration
dams must be made less destructive to fish

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, on the heels of a fiery Monday speech at the statehouse in which he criticized federal environmental policies, told the Bush administration Friday he would sue unless federal agencies make hydropower dam operations less destructive to salmon.

Kulongoski's action adds considerable weight to the side of fishing and conservation groups, which are challenging the administration's recent conclusion that federal dams in the Columbia Basin pose no threat of driving endangered salmon to extinction.

Kulongoski on Friday said he was "gravely concerned" the administration's approach to salmon protection "abandons any effort to achieve recovery of Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead populations."

A spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for endangered salmon, on Friday disputed the governor's assertions.

"We think we did the right thing by both the Endangered Species Act and by the needs of the region," spokesman Brian Gorman said. But he said discussions among federal agencies are ongoing and "productive enough to continue."

At the same time, the governor's office, in officially filing a 60-day notice of intent to sue Friday, said it had not fully committed to suing.

"We're making a good-faith effort at trying to find a solution," said Jim Myron, natural resource policy adviser.

The federal government's 10-year plan for dams is supposed to balance the needs of threatened and endangered salmon against the demand for electricity, irrigation water and barge transportation provided by a system of 14 federal dams sprawled across Oregon, Washington and Idaho. It comes in response to a federal judge, who last year rejected the government's previous blueprint for protecting salmon as lacking certainty.

Not advocating dam removal
Environmental groups and some Northwest tribes have long argued the most effective way to return fish to self-sustaining numbers is to remove four dams on the lower Snake River, where salmon and steelhead runs have dwindled despite efforts to restore habitat and minimize the threat from dams.

Kulongoski has never advocated dam removal. On Friday, he said stronger recovery actions will avoid the need to breach dams. Myron, his adviser, said: "If dams have to come out, I would say we have failed in our salmon recovery efforts."

To comply with the 2003 court ruling, the fisheries service, working with the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has proposed changes in the operation of the dams to better compensate for salmon killing.

Among the actions, the agencies said they will expand efforts to reduce predators, such as Caspian terns and pikeminnow, that prey heavily on young salmon. The agencies plan to outfit dams with structures, called spillway weirs, that help juveniles pass downstream without getting sucked into turbines. The proposal also calls for continuing habitat restoration work and transporting as much as 90 percent of the young of some salmon stocks by barge or truck past the dams.

The fisheries service concluded the actions will provide sufficient protection for the 13 salmon and steelhead stocks listed or proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Federal agencies put the annual cost of salmon protections at $600 million, not including losses of revenue from changes in dam operation that reduce power production.

Decision questioned
Given that spending level, dam advocates expressed dismay at the governor's action.

"Where do we want to spend our resources in this region? Apparently paying the lawyers," said Shane Scott, a policy analyst with the Public Power Council, an electric utility group.

"Instead of fighting the feds over this biological opinion for the hydrosystem, why don't we work together on a recovery plan that addresses all the impacts," he said, referring to habitat loss, hatchery fish and fishing.

Tribal, fishing and conservation group leaders said having Oregon as part of the lawsuit is important, and not just because of the legal and scientific firepower that the state government could bring to a legal battle.

Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said the state of Oregon has filed amicus briefs in support of several fish conservation measures. But as an intervener in the case, Spain said, Oregon would strengthen its position because the state would be a party at any settlement.

"Oregon has much to lose in its economy if salmon continue to plunge. We all know that recent improvements are primarily due to ocean conditions, and those could change on a dime," Spain said. "I think the governor is taking a very realistic and overdue approach to saving the region from catastrophe."

Conservationists and tribal spokesmen also said it was important to have a governor recognize the economic benefit of healthy salmon runs to the region.

"He's consistently acknowledged that salmon has a rightful place in the economic landscape -- something that we too often find ignored or undermined," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Michelle Cole of The Oregonian contributed to this report
Governor Threatens Suit Over Salmon
The Oregonian, January 15, 2005

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