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The Great Salmon Hoax

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, January 2006

Part 2 - Salmon and Dams
Ideological fixation on 'freeing' rivers

The '90s - if only we could start over. I make no apologies for the purpose of this column, which is debunking the myth of a "salmon crisis" created during those years.

"We" the non-environmentalist, non-salmon zealous, electricity bill paying Northwest public will win or lose on the salmon issue - perhaps soon. "Win" means reconciling salmon with the many other public interests served by the Columbia and Snake rivers and surrounding lands, as currently developed for beneficial human use. "Lose" means bearing ever increasing economic and other burdens to serve the national environmental movement's ideological fixation with "freeing" rivers.

Winning is better than losing. However, there are good and bad ways to lose. The bad way is to surrender and submit to training by the victors; use their words, "wild salmon," "species," "extinction," "recovery" and so on. More later on how these terms became building blocks of a myth that has consumed much of the economic potential of the Columbia River and may consume more. The good way to lose is to leave the battlefield dedicated to passing inspiration and experience to others who must inevitably fight again, in the Northwest or elsewhere in rural America.

I dedicate this column to James Buchal, a man who fought and lost, then left a legacy of wisdom for we who must now fight again. Representing Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) direct service industries (principally aluminum), Buchal fought a lonely fight for intellectual honesty in discussions of Columbia River salmon - in court, in administrative hearings and before the public. I first heard Buchal speak in the spring of 2000, early in my Snake River dam writing career.

I soon read the on-line version of his book, The Great Salmon Hoax (cited below). I was transfixed. Though new to the Snake River dam issue, I previously spent a career studying Pacific Coast fisheries. As a fisheries economist working with fisheries biologists, I learned - all too well - the art of making the facts sing the boss's song.

Buchal knew his stuff. He spoke in the "what" not in the "who." By that I mean he supported his assertions with specific factual information (numbers), not with slippery "scientists say" or "science says" rhetoric. He also knew the culture of fisheries science and management, where the scientific bodies were buried and how the intellectual killing was done. Buchal's tongue sharpened over the years, perhaps too much for the good of his cause. I attribute this to long years of frustration watching government and other house scientists place ideology and organizational advantage over scientific principle. For this I forgive him and heartily recommend his book.

Buchal did not fight on favorable ground. The inauguration of Democratic President Bill Clinton brought environmentalists to the center of national power. Bruce Babbitt, former president of the League of Conservation Voters, became Secretary of Interior with administration wide responsibility for enforcing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). George Frampton, former president of the Wilderness Society, became Assistant Secretary of Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks and later chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality. Clinton-Babbitt's first Fish and Wildlife Service Director, Mollie Beattie, previously ran a crippled bird hospital. Their second, Jamie Rappaport Clark, now works for Defenders of Wildlife.

The Clinton-Babbitt environmental team quickly laid its hand on the Columbia River. Until their arrival, all five NOAA-Fisheries Regional Administrators were civil servants, typically fisheries biologists. In 1993 (or early 1994) the Northwest Regional Administrator's post was converted to a political appointment. The first political appointee was Will Stelle, an environmental attorney who served for the remainder of the Clinton administration. Officially the Secretary of Commerce was Stelle's cabinet level boss. Grownup thinking suggests his real chain of command ran elsewhere. Stelle was previously Associate Director for Natural Resources in the Clinton White House Office of Environmental Policy and Special Assistant to Secretary of Interior Babbitt.

Wherever (ESA listed) Northwest salmon swam, so also ran the power of Stelle and those who selected and could remove him at will. I first met Stelle at a pro-environmentalist conference in April 2000. He spoke about Biop-2000, that year's Columbia River ESA compliance document and culmination of the task he was sent to the Northwest to accomplish. Stripped of details, Biop-2000 had two parts. First were the 4Hs, a laundry list of traditional salmon conservation measures - Harvest management, Hatchery reform, Habitat improvement and Hydro-power regulation. The second part was the zinger. The 4Hs required cooperation from many federal, state, local and tribal entities. If that cooperation was not forthcoming, NOAA-Fisheries would seek congressional authority to remove the Snake River dams.

I sat up in amazement. An official of the U.S. government (my government) was publicly advocating tactics I previously associated with totalitarian regimes and foreign occupying armies. An entire region was to be punished for resistance by any of its (legally autonomous) units of government, even if that resistance was entirely lawful and consistent with participation in a pluralistic democracy.

Other speakers shared neither my amazement nor outrage. Memorable to me were a Catholic priest and tribal "Medicine Man" who reinforced Stelle's duty-to-nature theme. The exception was James Buchal. Grimly ignoring the moderator's blatant contempt (expressed even in his introduction!) Buchal delivered a fact and number bristling rejoinder to the salmon story told by his fellow panelists.

Enough for now. If the devil ever hid in the details, he did so in Biop-2000. It will take another column to discuss that document, possibly more. Stay tuned.

Related Sites:
The Great Salmon Hoax by John Buchal

Related Pages:
Snake Fall Chinook Studies Get More Complicated by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 12/20/6

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
The Great Salmon Hoax
Wheat Life, January 2006

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