Feds Release Long-awaited Plans for Saving Salmon,by Associated Press
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The federal government today released its long-awaited strategy for saving Columbia Basin salmon from extinction. It calls for such measures as improving habitat by removing barriers to fish but does not endorse breaching four dams on the lower Snake River, an option preferred by some.
Indian tribes and environmentalists responded to the government's plan with a warning. They said failing to breach the dams dooms some salmon runs.
George Frampton, acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the strategy was based on the best available science, concentrating on actions likely to have the greatest benefit for the broadest range of species. It held out the possibility of dam breaching if the actions don't work.
The success of the strategy would be assessed after five, eight and 10 years to see if more aggressive steps, including breaching the dams, would be necessary, he said.
"If our common efforts do not achieve the progress we need, we all must be prepared to take even stronger action," Frampton said. "Extinction is not an option."
Frampton said the federal government could not do it all by itself, and called on the states and tribes to join in.
Will Stelle, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the strategy was an ambitious one, establishing strong mechanisms to change course if new science finds better ways to proceed.
Before the Federal Caucus of nine agencies responsible for salmon recovery could make its formal announcement, Indian tribes that have looked to salmon for their survival and a component of their religion for thousands of years sharply criticized the strategy for leaving out breaching of the Snake River dams.
"Today I told Mr. Frampton that he leaves me with but one choice, to fight back to defend my people, my religion and my culture," said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the board of trustees of the Cconfederated Tribes of the Umatilla.
"The federal decision not to breach the lower Snake River dams is a purposeful and conscious decison to cause the extinction of all salmon in the Snake River," Minthorn said. "Today is a dark day in the history of this great country."
He accused Frampton of using "twisted words" by claiming science does not justify breaching the dams. The tribes also object to federal suggestions for emphacizing wild fish in hatchery opertions and cutbacks in commercial fishing.
"These are the same bureaucrats who told you 30 years ago that the lower four Snake River dams would be good for salmon. And these are the same people who told you that if we just stopped fishing all would be well," Minthorn said.
The drafts of the so-called "All-H" paper detailing changes to operating hydroelectric dams and fish hatcheries, salmon harvest and improvements to habitat and the National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion will undergo a 60-day public comment period before becoming final.
The documents call for improving habitat by removing barriers to fish passage, increasing water in streams, and rebuilding riparian areas along waterways to improve conditions for fish in tributaries, estuaries and mainstem rivers.
Hatcheries would move from concentrating on producing large numbers of fish for release to minimizing harm to wild stocks, as well as supplementing natural spawning by collecting wild eggs and raising them to smolts for release to improve survival rates.
Working with states and tribes, the strategy calls for capping harvest rates on species protected by the Endangered Species Act at current levels, warning that further reductions are possible throuh buyouts of commercial fishing licenses and more selective fishing techniques.
The 29 federal hydroelectric dams will be operated to maximize the survival of juvenile and adult salmon by increasing the amount of water spilled over the dams, rather than run through the turbines, where many young fish die.
Salmon advocates and Indian tribes are widely expected to go to court to challenge the decision not to breach the earthen portions of the four 100-foot-tall dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington, and perhaps other provisions as well, such as hatchery operations and limiting harvests.
Meanwhile, a report by the General Accounting Office, the bipartisan investigative arm of Congress, criticized the Corps of Engineers evaluation of breaching the dams. The report was commissioned by Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who have opposed breaching.
The report said the Corps failed to calculate the harm to local residents from air pollution caused by trucking that would replace barging to haul grain to Portland and gas-fired power plants to replace the lost electricity.
The prospect of removing the dams has been discussed for years, but the Clinton administration removed all doubt over its plans last week, when Frampton and Stelle testified before a Senate committee that changes would be limited to a broad array of habitat improvements, harvest controls and changes at salmon hatcheries.
After several years, if the strategy doesn't advance the recovery of 13 stocks of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Columbia Basin, they said they may seek permission to breach the dams.
But it would take at least two years to gain congressional approval and make other preparations, assuring the dams would be in place at least another decade.
Indian tribes and environmentalists argue that restoring the lower Snake to a free-flowing river is crucial to saving salmon on the brink of extinction, and there is no time to lose.
Federal officials have said dam removal would only directly benefit one run of chinook, and it is important to give other improvements a chance before taking a step that will have serious impacts on the local economy.
Removing the dams built on the lower Snake in the 1970s would cut off barge transport of grain and other freight between Lewiston, Idaho, and the Columbia, lower reservoirs below irrigation intake pipes, and reduce Northwest electricity supplies by about 4 percent.
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