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Invest in Solutions to Northwest Salmon Crisis

by Paula Del Giudice, Special to The Times
Guest columnist, The Seattle Times, May 23, 2003

A solution to the decline of wild salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia rivers cannot be achieved until all of us are willing to invest in changes that work for people, fish and communities.

To date, we have been in a debate where the political rhetoric has painted a vision of doom and gloom if dams on the Snake River were removed to aid in salmon recovery. We are told that it will cost too much; that the communities that are connected to the river system will be devastated; and that we will not have enough electricity to keep the lights on.

The tenor of this debate has most people convinced that someone has to lose. According to most of our political leaders, we must continue to spend millions of dollars on a highly complex and expensive "aggressive, non-breach" strategy to avoid the removal of the dams.

"Aggressive, non-breach" essentially means we must continue to reduce the salmon harvest, rely on hatchery improvements, add a vast array of expensive attachments to the dams, and somehow secure a lot of water to run through the river to aid in reducing temperatures and help fish migrate downstream.

We are told that if we spend all of this money and accomplish all of these goals we can protect the meager economic status quo for rural communities that already have some of the lowest economic opportunity in the Northwest, and that we can continue to have salmon trickle into this region at levels that avoid extinction.

What is not being said with any credibility is that the future of these species and the economic futures of these communities are full of hope. The truth is we're not getting much return on our investments.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden found the Bush administration's plan to recover 12 endangered species of Northwest salmon and steelhead in the Columbia-Snake River system inadequate, essentially because the plan took credit for actions that purportedly would increase salmon survival but are not certain to occur or are not under the government's control to implement.

The federal attorney arguing this case claimed it is not the government's responsibility to recover these species, only to avoid extinction. To be fair, the plan bears as much of the Clinton administration's stamp as that of the Bush administration's, but either way it does not endure legal scrutiny.

The question is not who is right and who is wrong, or who wins and who loses. The real question is whether there is a way that we can invest in big changes that result in positive outcomes for all involved.

Can we take the money that we are currently spending on salmon recovery and upgrade the rail system to accommodate for the loss of barge transportation? Can we find and invest in alternative energy sources that allow us to tax the river less than we do now? What would dam removal look like? How can we help farmers pay the extra costs for pumping water from a free-flowing Snake? How much will all this cost and what will we gain?

These questions, and many others, have not been adequately answered because the political powers that be are afraid to ask them, or merely are representing campaign contributors' interests. Regardless of who is right or wrong, using public dollars to invest in the future is worth considering. At least we would be getting a better return for this investment.

The expanse of public lands and resources that are connected by the Snake River virtually are untapped in their economic potential. In the past few years, ocean conditions have been ideal for Northwest salmon and most of our river systems have seen improved runs of fish. Communities like Riggins, Idaho, experience huge increases in economic activity every time there are enough fish in the river to have a fishing season.

What would this region look like if we had the renewable economic resource of a river flush with salmon and flush with tourism?

A comprehensive solution to the Northwest salmon crisis is possible, but only if our elected leaders and the citizens they are supposed to serve are willing to ask tough questions and invest in the future. Hopefully, we'll have some answers before the last wild salmon or steelhead makes its way to the Idaho wilderness.

Paula Del Giudice is director of the Seattle office of the National Wildlife Federation.
Invest in Solutions to Northwest Salmon Crisis
The Seattle Times, May 23, 2003

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