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4 Western Governors Head Back to the Drawing Board for Salmon

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, June 5, 2001

Breaching not likely to be part of plan they will give White House

Josh Jackson, 13, from Lapwai, shows off his catch Sunday. Josh was fishing with his dad, Tracey, along the bank of a small creek that flows into the Salmon River in Riggins. Two years ago, the Clinton administration adopted a plan to restore 12 runs of endangered salmon and steelhead and take management of the Columbia River basin from a federal judge and return it to state, federal and tribal governments.

On May 7, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland threw out the plan and gave the Bush administration a year to rewrite it. Once again, the Pacific Northwest had been thrown into a state of uncertainty by the Endangered Species Act, the fate of its rivers and fish to be decided by a judge.

The governors of Washington, Oregon and Montana will meet today in Boise with Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to discuss what they can do to help the Bush administration write a new plan that will meet the strict legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act, which has been called the most powerful environmental legislation ever written.

The environmentalists, commercial fishermen, American Indian tribes and sportsmen who brought the lawsuit say they won´t stop using the courts to pressure the region´s hydroelectric industry, irrigation farmers, barge shippers and others until the four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Washington are removed or the salmon runs are restored.

“We are committed to the tough side of what we have to do to keep this Northwest icon in existence,” said Pat Ford of Boise, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon. “But we also want a solution that works for all of the people and the communities of the Northwest.”

Salmon are a physical manifestation of the wild character of the Pacific Northwest. They provide growing economic benefits to fishing communities and spiritual sustenance to the Northwest´s American Indian tribes. The four Snake River dams provide enough power to light Seattle when they run at their peak in the spring.

Ford, other salmon advocates and a strong majority of fisheries scientists say that salmon runs can´t be restored without removing the dams. The National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with protecting the salmon under the Endangered Species Act, hopes to make relatively minor changes to the plan to persuade Redden that it complies with the law.

“This administration believes that the requirements of the biological opinion and recovery of salmon can be achieved without breaching dams,” NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said.

At issue in court now is what will happen in the next year until a new plan is written.

More decisions ahead
In May, Redden declared the plan was inadequate and now is hearing arguments on what he should do next. The salmon advocates have asked the judge to throw out the Clinton salmon plan altogether and force the Bush administration to start all over. In the meantime, their attorneys argue the federal government must do more to help young salmon through the labyrinth of eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

That would mean buying more water from Idaho farmers to keep it in the river. The increased flows and additional water spilled over the dams would keep fish away from the turbines that generate electricity.

The National Marine Fisheries Service wants Redden to keep the plan in place while it writes a new plan that says federal agencies´ actions comply with the Endangered Species Act. Without keeping the current plan in place, Gorman said, a series of lawsuits could shut down federally approved activities across the region, including irrigation farming, road building, mining, logging, river rafting, hydroelectric dam operation and shipping.

The plan, technically called a biological opinion, stated that the federal dams jeopardized the survival of salmon. But it also said a series of actions across the Pacific Northwest, such as habitat-improvement projects on tributaries, more natural hatcheries and harvest limits in the Columbia and Pacific Ocean, could be used to offset the losses salmon sustain at the dams.

In May, Redden ruled narrowly that the fisheries service cannot ensure with enough certainty that the recommended actions it ordered will take place. Redden has not yet ruled on the larger question of whether these actions would be sufficient to meet the law.

The fisheries service hopes to satisfy the judge by issuing separate biological opinions to all of the federal agencies, requiring them to carry through on their commitments. Similar conservation agreements that are enforceable can be signed with states. The actions of private landowners can be ensured through formal habitat conservation plans approved by the fisheries service.

But all of these actions will take money. Congress cut salmon funding in 2003, and the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets electricity from the dams and pays much of the cost of the salmon-restoration plan, wants to reduce its fish budget by 25 percent.

The governors’ role
This is where the governors come in. In 2000, they approved a plan that largely mirrored the Clinton plan for salmon restoration. Like that plan, the governors deferred a decision on dam breaching until the alternative plan was given a chance to work.

The governors´ role in this process is largely advisory. In their meeting today, they will discuss the proposed BPA funding cut and repeat or even harden their stand against breaching. But the cast of characters has changed since 2000.

The one governor who supported dam breaching, Oregon´s John Kitzhaber, has since retired. His successor, fellow Democrat Ted Kulongoski, has yet to take a stand on the issue. Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, who opposed breaching but was willing to consider it, has been replaced by Judy Martz, a Republican who opposes breaching. The two holdovers, Republican Kempthorne and Democrat Gary Locke of Washington, oppose breaching.

Vicki Anderson, who co-owns the Salmon River Motel in Riggins, is disappointed that Kempthorne won´t even discuss the possibility of dam breaching. For 15 days in May, her motel was packed with salmon fishermen who flocked to fish for hatchery fish in the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers. She remembers the 1990s, when salmon disappeared from the river and Riggins was nearly a ghost town in the spring.

“I think if Kempthorne was ever a real angler and liked to catch steelhead and salmon every weekend, he might see things a little differently,” she said.

A shift in conditions in the past five years in the part of the Pacific Ocean where Snake River salmon live increased productivity dramatically and kept salmon from going extinct. It also returned hatchery salmon, which for the most part are not protected under the Endangered Species Act, in record numbers. That produced a bonanza for anglers, commercial fishermen and related businesses throughout the region.

A debate over economic effects
In Idaho, the 2001 salmon season alone generated $90 million in economic activity, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game study said.

The Rand Corp., a private think tank that studied removing four dams on the lower Snake River, said the removal might be good for the region´s economy — or, at worst, have no net impact. Rand´s 2002 report also said that replacing power from the dams would create almost 15,000 new jobs.

But for many residents of Lewiston, which ships grain and other goods on barges to Portland through a series of locks provided at the dams, breaching dams is more than an economic issue.

You can almost walk across the Clearwater River on salmon-fishing boats in the spring, said Owen Squires, a director of the Pulp and Paperworkers Resource Council in Lewiston.

“I lived here before the dams were built, and I´ll tell you right now there are so many more fish coming back now than there was then,” Squires said. “We just need to concentrate on the returns and what´s working for fish, families and communities.

“Dam breaching doesn´t meet that criteria,” he said.

Gorman shudders when he hears people talk about the recent returns in terms of recovery. But he shares Squires view that conditions have improved.

“Ocean conditions are primarily responsible for these returns, and ocean conditions being what they are, they will be less friendly at some point, and returns will not be as friendly,” he said.

“But it flies in the face of common sense to say the sacrifices the region has made have not contributed to these good returns.”

For salmon to sustain populations over time, scientists say from 2 percent to 6 percent of the young wild fish that leave the spawning grounds must return to spawn as adults. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the rate of return in the Snake River was 20 times below the minimum. And for two years in a row, no fish returned to many streams.

In the past few years, the returns have rebounded to the minimum level in the Snake. But below the lower four dams in the Columbia, returns have been four times higher, Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists said.

Redden´s decision adds to the extraordinary policy decisions the agency must make in the next year. NMFS already is rewriting its hatchery policies in light of an earlier court decision. And it has embarked on a separate, broader review of the status of nearly all salmon and steelhead stocks on the West Coast to determine whether they need protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“The next six to eight months hold some of the most dramatic changes over how the Endangered Species Act is applied and how it affects the region,” Gorman said.

Rocky Barker
4 Western Governors Head Back to the Drawing Board for Salmon
The Idaho Statesman, June 5, 2001

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