by Jim McDermott
In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1843, Henry David Thoreau wrote "the best way to correct a mistake is to make it right." More than 150 years later, that is still great advice as we start anew a process to ensure protection of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake River Basin.
In 2000, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and several other federal agencies released the federal salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake rivers. Although the plan acknowledged that removal of four dams on the lower Snake River is the best approach to recover endangered salmon and steelhead, the plan called for attempting a series of technical fixes outside the control of the federal agencies prior to implementing the dam-removal option.
The National Wildlife Federation (representing commercial and sport fishing associations, conservation organizations and Columbia River tribes) sued, alleging the plan violated the Endangered Species Act.
In May, Judge James Redden of the U.S. District Court of Oregon ruled that the federal plan to protect and restore salmon and steelhead in the basin is illegal. Simply put, he determined that the plan put too much emphasis on actions we have no guarantee will be taken, and he gave the Bush administration a year to make it right.
With nine months left to develop a new, legal plan, it does not appear the Bush administration is taking its task seriously. In recent testimony before the U.S. Senate, administration representatives tried to downplay the court's decision, asserting that the problems with the current plan need merely technical "tweaks" and small changes to comply with federal laws and tribal treaties.
I disagree, but more important, so does Judge Redden, who specifically stated that the current federal salmon plan has "serious flaws." Not merely small issues and technical violations. "Serious flaws." What's more, the court imposed on the administration a rigorous timeline for delivering a new and legal plan to him, to the region and to the nation.
He ordered the administration to provide him progress reports every 90 days, and if "meaningful and specific progress" has not been made, the plan then must identify more fully the changes the administration intends to make at the federal dams to address their impact on salmon, "up to and including the breaching of the Snake River dams." The court has stated clearly that partially removing the four lower Snake River dams is an option on the table.
The Bush administration, and the relevant agencies of the federal government, must acknowledge the urgency of the situation and take their salmon-recovery obligations very seriously. The salmon, people and communities of the Northwest deserve no less. That is why I introduced the Salmon Planning Act (HR 1097) earlier this year, and why more than 90 of my colleagues in the House of Representatives, Democrat and Republican, have joined in support of the bill.
I want to make sure that we in the Northwest are not excluded from the process because this administration and the responsible agencies fail to fulfill their obligations.
The Salmon Planning Act (SPA) does not require dam removal in any way. Rather, it will help us develop much-needed information about the likely costs and benefits of partially removing four dams on the lower Snake River to recover wild salmon and steelhead; it will allow us to identify essential actions to keep affected communities whole should dam removal ultimately be required.
By initiating key studies now and granting provisional authority to the appropriate federal agencies to remove these dams if such action were determined necessary, the SPA lays the groundwork to ensure that Northwesterners have the information needed to make prudent decisions that protect our salmon and our communities.
The continuing federal legacy of failure to develop a legal, viable salmon-recovery strategy neither solves our current problem nor corrects past mistakes. And it will not satisfy the federal court, the region or the nation. We can learn from the protracted conflicts that marked our efforts to protect the spotted owl, and choose to make sensible, workable decisions.
The worst thing we can do is to duck the hard decisions and let others make the choices for us. We should look hard at the pitched debate over Oregon's Klamath River that has unnecessarily put farmers, Native American tribes and fishing communities at odds. These conflicts can be avoided, but only if we choose to make thoughtful, careful and timely decisions.
The court has provided us a new opportunity to secure a future that includes wild salmon and healthy communities. To fail now is the surest way for the Northwest to risk a solution imposed upon us from either the courts or political interests outside the region. Instead, let's take this opportunity, correct our past mistakes and, as Thoreau said, let's make it right.
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