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Activists Hedge Some Basic Details

by Dennis T. Avery - Bridge News
Spokesman Review, September 8, 2001

Learning more about a topic he feels strongly about -- dams on the Snake River
-- leads Dennis T. Avery to ponder other information on ecological issues.

The states of Oregon and Washington are in the midst of the biggest salmon runs in 60 years. Never mind all the wailing you've heard about the salmon being endangered by logging, dams, irrigated farming and pollution. There are more salmon in Pacific Northwest rivers this year than almost anyone can remember.

The Portland Oregonian reports more salmon and steelhead have climbed Bonneville Dam's fish ladders than in any year since the dam was built in 1938, and the salmon run is still going.

The Oregonian says that "The upswing is lifting the numbers of even the most imperiled wild stocks now protected by the federal Endangered Species Act." The run of endangered Snake River Chinook is up fivefold.

Two years ago, I wrote a harshly received column recommending that we not tear out the dams on the Snake River. I was strongly influenced by two fish researchers, who published studies on a 25-year cycle in the Pacific's eastward currents.

These currents carry nutrients and food fish to the North American coast. Every 25 years or so, the currents shift from a northern slant (into the Gulf of Alaska) to a southern slant (along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.)

The key information is the fishing records, which indicate that Washington-Oregon salmon were abundant from 1900 to about 1925, scarce again until the 1940s, abundant from the mid-1940s to about 1977 and have been scarce again for the past 25 years.

I never heard this cycle mentioned in all my reading about the endangerment of salmon. Excited, I called my cousin, who operates an irrigated farm in Idaho.

Suzy was not excited. She said the cycle was well known to local fishermen, and was one of the reasons her Idaho community was opposed to tearing out the dams. My keep-the-dams column nevertheless generated more hostile mail than anything else I've written. (And I've stepped on a lot of toes over the years.)

The scientists told me they'd been fiercely criticized by colleagues, who saw the eco-campaign on salmon as the source of big funding for fish research.

The Oregonian credits the big fish run to good river flows, improvements in fish passage at Columbia River dams and "an upturn in ocean conditions, where salmon spend their adult lives feeding before returning to spawn in fresh water."

The region's improvements in fish ladders and dam turbines are significant to the survival of young fish, as I wrote two years ago. But they were installed in the 1970s. The big salmon runs we're seeing today are from the fully predictable 25-year change in the Pacific Ocean's currents. Oregon's salmon fishery manager, Steve King, says, "The ocean is alive with bait fish."

We almost tore out dams that provide valuable power and irrigation water because the public didn't know about the 25-year cycle. The environmental movement owed us that information. If they didn't know about this huge regional fish cycle, they didn't know enough to give us fish management advice.

This is not an isolated instance: We've suffered huge increases in lumber costs because the eco-activists said the spotted owl was endangered because of logging. The truth is that spotted owls like to nest in old growth, but need new-growth forests in which to hunt wood rats. A reasonable pattern of tree harvest benefits the owls.

Meanwhile, more tropical forests are being cut to supply the wood that might have come from sustainable forestry (and thriving rural communities) in Washington and Oregon.

We were told deformed frogs were the "canaries in the coal mine," warning us of pesticide pollution that would force widespread amphibian extinction. Testing shows the frogs are being deformed by a natural parasite.

We're told nutrients from big hog farms in North Carolina are heavily polluting the rivers and killing fish. State water quality data show, instead, that most of the nutrients going into the rivers come from urban sewage plants. The fish kills are mostly expectable, natural events far from the hog farms.

Pesticides are blamed for killing wildlife near the fields, but get no credit for millions of acres of wildlands not plowed for low-yield farming.

We were told that biotech crops would kill off the Monarch butterfly. Field testing shows the biotech crops modestly help the Monarchs by cutting pesticide use and the U.S. is currently in a "butterfly explosion."

Will the environmental activists now to start wail about the endangerment of salmon in the Gulf of Alaska, and blame it on oil drilling?

We do owe the environmental movement an enormous debt of gratitude for raising our consciousness about saving wildlife. The greens advanced society's conservation efforts by decades.

But today the environmental movement is huge, well-funded and politically powerful. With that power comes responsibility.

The environmental movement owes the public honesty, integrity and professionalism in its assessments of wildlife problems. Today's huge salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest indicate we're not getting that.

Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, Va., and is director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis.
Activists Hedge Some Basic Details
Spokesman Review, September 8, 2001

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