E-mails Show Internal Debate
by Matthew Preusch
Independent scientists largely approved of the Obama administration's plan for Northwest salmon and dam, internal e-mails show.
The administration released scores of documents related to its review of the controversial plan, meant to keep salmon from sliding closer to extinction due to the operation of federal hydroelectric dams, late last month.
The documents show considerable internal discussion over what parts of the plan need to be strengthened, as well as many positive comments from independent scientists.
You can read the documents at The Oregonian's Scribd.com page.
The state of Oregon, Nez Perce Tribe and salmon and fishing groups are suing the government over the plan, called a Biological Opinion, or BiOp, which was first introduced during the Bush administration.
In September, the Obama administration said the plan was scientifically sound, though federal fishery and dam managers added some other salmon-friendly actions to it. A federal judge in Portland is currently weighing whether to approve the plan and those additions, which would last for 10 years.
Though cautious, the comments in the documents from scientists reviewing the proposal, like The Nature Conservancy's Peter Kareiva, are generally positive.
"The breadth, general thinking, and comprehensiveness of actions described are on target," one wrote. "I do have some concerns -- most likely reflecting the lack of details."
The plan relies in large part on improvements to fish habitat to help imperiled salmon rebound, but science does not entirely understand the degree to which these sort of restoration projects actually help populations of fish that are are born and spawn in fresh water but mature at sea.
Significantly, an e-mail summarizing the scientists' views touches on the issue of breaching four federal dams on the Snake River to aid fish, which was included in the plan as an option of last resort.
"They strongly noted that dam breaching would take a very long time, but would have very positive effects in the long run; however, it would have extremely negative short term effect that could negate the positive long term effects," the e-mail said.
Save our Wild Salmon, which is challenging the plan in court, contends the e-mails show the review was not independent, and they want more documents released.
"These documents tell a story: they suggest that the reviewers had serious concerns with the 2008 BiOp; they suggest that the reviewers and federal agency biologists had serious concerns with the attempt to "fix" those problems through the AMIP; and they suggest that NOAA knew that it was ignoring this advice when it released the AMIP," the group said. (PDF)
Indeed, some of the e-mails do include reservations about the plan and the administration's review of it, some of which led to additions to the plan.
For example, in July NOAA's John Ferguson said the effects of climate change needed to be more fully discussed. Also, he wrote, "Hatchery effects are being glossed over in our discussions, relative to the emphasis placed on these by the panel."
But a spokesman for the fisheries agency said it's clear the documents contain no smoking gun, as its opponents had hoped for.
Save Our Wild Salmon's "extracts are chosen for their dramatic value, but in general, they are exactly the kind of robust reaction you'd expect of truly independent scientists reacting to a complex document," said NOAA's Brian Gorman.
The scores of e-mails also reveal scientists and federal officials, who aren't above using the word "awesome," behaving like people in any work environment by suggesting meeting for a beer sometime, for example.
Overseeing the review and signing off on the plan was Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon ecologist that now leads NOAA. In several of the e-mails she is referred to as "Dr. L", as in "Dr. L. will be putting great emphasis on our response to the independent scientists."
Speaking after a November court hearing about the plan, Lubchenco said she supported the science behind the plan "100 percent."
"We paid attention to the science; we paid attention to the law," she said.
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