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Salmon Effort to Headquarter in Portland

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, March 8, 2003

The Seattle-based federal agency responsible for protecting endangered salmon throughout the Columbia River Basin on Friday named a Portland man to lead recovery efforts from a new division based in Portland.

NOAA Fisheries said the new office will be headed by Robert Walton, an engineer and policy analyst who handles fish and wildlife issues for a group of consumer-owned electric utilities.

Walton's division will steer decisions that would dictate how extensively commercial and sport fisheries could operate.

It also will take part in the controversy over salmon hatcheries, which produce fish that can compete for food and habitat with wild-spawned populations. The division will develop detailed plans for restoring more than a dozen threatened or endangered runs of salmon and steelhead in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Conservation groups said such plans are long overdue, but expressed doubts about the U.S. government's commitment of money and staff to speed recovery work.

"It's a great move, but are these guys going to have the fuel they need to carry out a mandate?" said Joe Whitworth, executive director of Oregon Trout, a nonprofit group with the mission of restoring native salmon. "They are already understaffed by a lot, and the responsibilities continue to grow."

Some of the threatened salmon runs collapsed to near-extinction more than a decade ago, said Bill Bakke, director of the Native Fish Society, a Portland-based conservation group.

"We still don't have a recovery plan for any of them," he said. "We need that game plan desperately."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, formerly named the National Marine Fisheries Service, has assigned 15 staff biologists to the salmon recovery division, which has not been given its own budget. So far, Walton is the only new hire. Brian Gorman, an agency spokesman, said the consolidation of staff into a single, focused department will speed recovery efforts.

The agency currently spends about $37 million a year on Northwest salmon studies, and on coordinating and advising other agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers. It provides an additional $6 million a year to support salmon hatcheries, Gorman said.

Some conservationists questioned the choice of Walton, 55, who worked with an Alaskan oil producer and refinery, in addition to many years with the Public Power Council. The council represents 114 consumer-owned utilities in the Northwest.

"I'm puzzled that someone from the energy community was picked over someone from the salmon community," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation groups. "The groups in our coalition would be a lot more comfortable with a very experienced person from the salmon recovery community -- state, tribal or federal."

But Bakke, from the Native Fish Society, expressed confidence in Walton, despite his energy background.

"He's always been willing to ask the hard questions, and he's also been willing to follow the science," Bakke said. "He's been a bridge builder among the development interests, the regulators, and the tribes and other fishing interests."

Bob Lohn, Northwest regional head of NOAA Fisheries, in a prepared statement, said Walton's experience, including his working relationships with state officials, tribal leaders, industry and environmental groups "gives him a superb background for this job."

Lohn was not available to answer questions Friday.

Walton, who starts work in April, said he is "sympathetic" with concerns about his energy background. But Walton said salmon issues have dominated his last 10 years at the Public Power Council.

"I have a deep respect for all of the parties," he said. "And I have a great amount of frustration that they haven't worked together more than they have."

As assistant manager of the council, Walton said his mandate was to work toward reliable energy supply, affordable rates and the recovery of salmon.

"I believe that is what the public wants," he said.

Walton holds an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Washington, where he also earned a master's degree in science and public policy.

Before joining the power council 12 years ago, Walton was Alaska's state ombudsman. Prior to that, he spent two years scouting natural resource development investments for Earth Resources Co. in Fairbanks, which ran an oil refinery in North Poll, Alaska.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Salmon Effort to Headquarter in Portland
The Oregonian, March 8, 2003

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