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Federal Judge Praises New Salmon-Protection Plan

by Hal Bernton
Seattle Times, November 23, 2009

But the federal government must decide whether it wants to reopen the process
to make sure Obama administration additions are legal.

PORTLAND -- Declaring the federal government's newest salmon recovery plan "a good piece of work," U.S. District Court Judge James Redden on Monday appeared eager to resolve a 15-year legal battle about how to restore threatened and endangered fish runs in the Columbia River basin.

The Obama administration plan is backed by the state of Washington as well as six Indian tribes. It calls for wide-ranging efforts to improve fish habitat, reform hatcheries and try to ease the fish passage through hydroelectric dams and slow-moving water that backs up behind the dams.

Unlike a previous plan by the Bush administration, this restoration plan calls for a study on breaching four Snake River dams in Idaho if runs go into sharp decline.

Redden, at a hearing in U.S. District Court, said the restoration package needs more work to help it withstand further legal challenges.

Redden also questioned whether the restoration effort could get more water released from behind dams in Idaho or from Canada to help boost salmon survival rates.

But Redden appeared hopeful that he could eventually sign off on the federal plan, which will guide how the federal government spends billions of dollars on restoring salmon runs in the years ahead.

"I really appreciate the efforts that everyone has made," Redden said. "We have come a long way."

His remarks appeared to be a setback for environmentalists, the state of Oregon and other plaintiffs.

They say the Obama administration's plan still falls far short of meeting the requirements of the federal Endangered Species act. For example, they had hoped to see breaching of the Snake River dams, allowing the river to flow freely, play a more prominent role in the restoration effort.

Those groups asked the judge for a summary judgment to reject the plan.

Todd True of Earthjustice, a legal organization that represents environmental groups, said the plan was based on overly optimistic assumptions that failed to do enough to reduce the number of salmon killed by the basin's hydroelectric plants.

"We are ready to sit down and talk," True said. "But I don't hear the government thinks there is a problem."

The revamped salmon plan was one of the early challenges for NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, who previously was a professor at Oregon State University.

At the end of the hearing, she praised Redden for helping push an improved restoration plan.

Lubchenco said the region now has a chance to end the years of litigation and move forward with restoring salmon.

She rejected allegations that the plan still does not pass scientific muster. "We paid attention to the science, and we paid attention to the law," Lubchenco said.

Hal Bernton
Federal Judge Praises New Salmon-Protection Plan
Seattle Times, November 23, 2009

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