Citing New Info, Feds Propose
by Bill Rudolph
The federal government announced last week that it proposes to cut critical habitat designations for ESA-listed salmon and steelhead stocks in the Northwest by 80 percent, whittling down previous protection to 27,000 miles of Northwest streams.
In a Nov. 30 briefing, NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn said updated information has helped his agency's scientists determine the locations ESA-listed fish use. In contrast, just a few years ago the agency had designated all habitat "critical" to the conservation of a particular ESU [Evolutionarily Significant Unit], whether fish were known to use it or not. The previous designations included all potential habitat for the listed stocks.
But the main impetus for the change came after the agency lost a lawsuit filed by developers and others that challenged the critical habitat designations of 13 West Coast ESUs because the government never factored in the required economic analysis.
Lohn said his agency has estimated the cost of the previous designations at more than $238 million annually to the Northwest economy. The 689-page draft economic analysis that accompanied the new proposal even recommends excluding some critical habitat because economic activity in those areas is judged to outweigh biological benefits.
The proposal is expected to make a significant dent in the original designations, which were withdrawn by the feds after the lawsuit. If enacted, there would still be about 25 million acres in Idaho, Oregon and Washington tied up with the ESA designation.
"There have been no critical habitat designations since the old rules were tossed out in 2002," said Tim Harris, an attorney with the Building Industry Association of Washington. "Yesterday's announcement now creates a new layer of bureaucracy and adds hundreds of thousands of acres in new critical habitat." Harris said there is no justification for keeping most of the runs listed under the ESA since federal agencies concede that most salmon populations are well above their 10-year averages.
The BIAW was a party in the lawsuit that forced the agency to withdraw its critical habitat designations. During the litigation, an infamous 2000 memo surfaced that was written by then-acting regional administrator Donna Darm wherein she described her agency's policy on critical habitat--"we just designate it all."
In Puget Sound, for instance, where chinook and Hood Canal chum are listed for protection, the document recommends excluding 12 areas of low conservation value and four of medium value where they have determined economic losses outweigh biological benefits. The areas in question represent about 389 stream miles, or 18 percent of the stream miles in the chinook ESU, and include the Baker River, Sammamish river watersheds (including Lake Sammamish) and several watersheds on the Kitsap Peninsula.
The Lake Washington area was not designated for exclusion because of its high conservation value as a "connectivity corridor." The analysis pegged the economic cost of designating the lake as critical habitat at more than $15 million a year. But excluding the other areas would reduce the annual economic cost of the critical habitat designations for the Puget Sound chinook ESU from about $95 million to $77 million a year.
For the upper Columbia chinook ESU, several areas were proposed for exclusion for economic reasons, including tributaries of the lower Methow River, along with tributaries of Lake Entiat, Icicle Creek and the lower Wenatchee River, which is expected to reduce the economic impact of the designations by nearly $3 million from an original estimate of $16 million.
Lohn told reporters last week that he didn't see any significant reductions in ESA consultation requirements from the new proposal, which is now subject to a 60-day public comment period. He also noted that the proposed designations may be reduced by another 10 percent before they are finalized next June.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs