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Governors Will Wait to Judge Federal Salmon Plan

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, July 29, 2000

Officials say lawsuits inevitable over fisheries service proposal

Northwest governors are withholding judgment on a federal salmon-saving plan that drew sharp and immediate criticism from others.

"What we heard (from the federal agencies) and read in the press releases looked to us to be headed in the right direction," said Curt Smitch, salmon policy adviser to Washington Gov. Gary Locke. "But with salmon, the devil is often in the details."

After a brief review of the 400-page "biological opinion" released Thursday, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said he likes several components, particularly a mandate to reform hatcheries.

"But much more work is required in the areas of harvest, habitat and the hydropower system if this biological opinion is to emerge as a credible road map to recovery," a statement from Kitzhaber's office said.

Kitzhaber said he hoped the changes could be made during the next two months, the period set aside for federal, state and tribal agencies to comment on the plan.

John Etchart, a Montana member of the Northwest Power Planning Council, said state officials have not thoroughly read the document. Until they do, Etchart said, Gov. Marc Racicot would have no comment.

A spokesman for Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne offered a similar response.

Earlier in the week, Democrats Kitzhaber and Locke joined Republicans Kempthorne and Racicot in releasing guidelines they hoped would form the foundation for salmon recovery. The biological opinion released Thursday by the National Marine Fisheries Service appears to contain many of the elements requested by the governors.

The document, ordered by a federal judge, was five years in the making and will become the blueprint for work to save salmon runs protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Clinton administration officials acknowledge that many specifics, such as exactly how habitat will be improved and stream flows increased, remain to be settled.

In addition to those specifics, which could take months to work out, the framework is nearly certain to change based on state and tribal concerns, fisheries service spokesman Brian Gorman said. The agency completes "dozens" of biological opinions for endangered species each year; most change in the 60 days it takes for draft plans to become final documents, Gorman said. After that, they can be changed only under a judge's orders.

In contrast to the governors' cautious remarks, other politicians and activists were swift to criticize the plan.

Environmental groups and Native Americans wanted the government to immediately breach the four Snake River dams in Washington. Republicans who represent the Northwest in Congress were equally critical because the plan leaves open the possibility that the dams might eventually be breached, if other steps don't work.

On Thursday, the Umatilla tribe in Oregon threatened to sue the government over the plan. But even if the tribe doesn't sue, other groups certainly will, said Gorman, Smitch and several others.

"It's going to end up back in court. That's a given," Smitch said. "One side will say it's too much and the other side will say it's not enough."

The plan hinges on getting money from Congress for various projects. Federal officials said they won't know the costs until the work is planned, but the tab is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars a year beyond the $400 million to $700 million already budgeted by the Bonneville Power Administration.

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., already has said he'll block funding for engineering studies into the possibility of breaching the dams. Similarly, a new presidential administration could decide to ignore portions of the recovery plan. But such roadblocks could strengthen any lawsuits by environmentalists or the tribes, Gorman said.

Dan Hansen
Governors Will Wait to Judge Federal Salmon Plan
Spokesman Review, July 29, 2000

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