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ESA - Playing Another Mind Game

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, February 2006

Part 3 - Salmon and Dams

A major purpose of this series is debunking the popular notion that members of the lay public should "trust the scientists" when forming their views about Columbia River salmon management and Endangered Species Act (ESA) compliance. In doing so, I make no suggestion that pertinent laws, rules or scientific ethics have been violated. The problem is not rule breakers but the rules themselves, formal and informal. As is usually the case in American politics and public administration, the rules serve the interests of those who make and influence them. When salmon are involved, that group rarely includes non-fisheries economic beneficiaries of the Columbia River.

When media, bureaucrats and special interest advocates use the term "scientist" in the context of environmental policy or natural resource management, they are usually referring to holders of graduate degrees in biology, zoology, fisheries or wildlife science and similar disciplines, who exercise those skills in policy making and implementing organizations. The recently created interdisciplinary field of conservation biology is typically also included, a practice I question for reasons discussed elsewhere.

For issues involving Columbia River salmon, the scientist employing organizations include the Northwest Regional Office and Northwest Fisheries Science Center of NOAA Fisheries, the fish and game (wildlife) departments of the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, Northwest treaty tribes and the fisheries academic programs of the University of Washington and several other Northwest colleges and universities. Notable among many other scientist employing organizations is the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, created in 1980 to coordinate Northwest hydropower production and address Columbia River fisheries issues.

The statement "Blacks are Democrats, white evangelicals are Republicans." does not predict, with certainty, how each member of either group will vote. However, it provides a higher probability of accuracy than "Americans divide equally between parties." That is the probabilistic sense in which the following comments are offered concerning the values and culture of natural resource and environmental scientists.

Most individuals holding degrees and positions in natural resource and environmental science are also what ordinary citizen would call environmentalists in the political/ideological sense. By this I do not mean the environmentalism most Americans profess; giving environmental resources a place among other community values, such as private economic interests, general economic well being, physical security and so on. I mean something stronger.

For some environmental scientists that stronger ideological commitment is to environmental values in general; which they consider senior to all non-environmental public and private interests, under all circumstances, regardless of trade-offs. If you doubt this, open a conversation with someone calling himself a conservation biologist. Get him to offer even one example in which the overall public interest is served by logging an old growth forest, eliminating animals of a particular species from a particular region or otherwise sinning against the environmental ethic. Accepting the political inevitability of such sins doesn't count. He must state his belief that the environmental sin is positively desirable, within a broader concept of the public interest that includes environmental values, but is not limited to them. If you can't find a qualifying conservation biologist, lighten your task by picking someone trained in a more traditional discipline like biology, zoology or botany, provided he works on environmental policy. In either case, good luck.

For other environmental scientists, their strong environmentalism is centered around their specialty. A zoologist may not care about the ozone layer. However, he will kick anything or anyone into a ditch to save the last breeding pair of the animal he wrote his dissertation about. Among fisheries biologists, that single minded attitude often extends to the financial and other socioeconomic interests of sport, tribal or commercial fishermen. This makes a difference in the Columbia River where ESA listed salmon populations are sometimes harvested in large enough quantities to have locally significant economic consequences. "Bloody mindedness" is a well chosen Canadian term for this attitude of mine over thine, regardless of consequences for thine. Ideological consensus around such narrowly focused values is both the cause and product of the culture of environmental science organizations. The "fight for the critters" ethic is a strong motive drawing young people into the environmental sciences. Once accepted (with degree and professional job) they conform to the norms of their adopted culture and expect conformity from others, particularly subordinates as they rise in rank.

Let's play another mind game. Its the early 90s. You are a young scientist with an agency doing Columbia River salmon - ESA compliance work. Every day you make choices. Pursue one research topic, reject another. Define a term this way, or that. Cite this source, not that. Base a calculation on this assumption, or that. All options satisfy relevant scientific and legal criteria. However, some choices among them strengthen arguments for major alteration of the hydro system, like removing the Snake River dams. Other choices weaken those arguments.

How do you choose? You could flip a coin. Or, you could consider the views of your cultural and administrative leaders.

If environmentalists had saints they would include John Muir and David Brower, respectively the Sierra Club's founder and most significant Executive Director. During the Clinton Administration, former environmentalist leader Bruce Babbitt (President, League of Conservation Voters) became Secretary of Interior. That position gave him administration-wide influence over ESA compliance. Babbitt's assistant, Will Stelle, left that position to supervise ESA compliance on the Columbia River during the period in which most of the today's administrative and scientific record was created. If you (the young scientist) work for the federal government, Stelle is your boss's boss. If you are with a university or other non-federal fisheries agency, Stelle influences your program's federal funding.

Here is what your environmentalist culture icons and administrative leaders had to say about dams and water resource developments.

"Dam Hetch Hetchy! [a river in Yosemite National Park] As well dam for water tanks the people's cathedrals and churches for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man." (John Muir)

"I hate all dams, large and small." (David Brower)

"It was in the summer of 1994 . . . I remember getting up and saying, what I want most to do as Secretary of the Interior is tear down a good dam." (Bruce Babbitt)

For over a decade, and continuing to this day, thousands of day-to-day research design decisions are being made by working level environmental and natural resource scientists who admire environmentalist icons like Muir and Brower and necessarily defer to more senior environmentalists-in-government like Babbitt and Stelle.

We will explore several of those decisions in subsequent columns. Why were salmon populations spawning above the Snake River dams classified (for ESA compliance) separately from similar populations elsewhere in the Columbia? Why did risk models project salmon populations decades into the future? Why have salmon saving technologies, like smolt transportation (barging) and biological integrity preserving hatcheries, been opposed as permanent ESA compliance measures? Why did NOAA Fisheries order destruction of salmon as they approached their spawning grounds? The latter, ostensibly scientific decision led to one of the few successful strike backs by irrigators and other hydro system economic beneficiaries.

For now, the bottom line. "Dam breaching . . . holds promise for recovering the Snake River runs. . . We [the Clinton Administration] fully intend to continue planning for [the possibility of dam breaching. There are currently proposed economic mitigation] studies for costs of dam breaching . . . [and] . . . engineering studies to more finely evaluate the dam breaching alternative. . . The degree to which the Federal hydropower system has to be . . . breached will be driven by the success or failure of actions . . . States Tribes and local communities take" (George Frampton, former President of the Wilderness Society and Chairman of the Clinton Administration Council on Environmental Quality, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources)

Frampton was summarizing BiOp-2000, the bureaucratic name for the Clinton administration's approach to ESA compliance on the Columbia River. Timing of the document's release illustrates how keenly the drafters understood its political implications. The scheduled release date was shortly after the 2000 election. Then came the recount. Final release occurred immediately after it became known that implementation would fall to George Bush instead of Al Gore.

That document and its supporting scientific and administrative record now form the legal terrain upon which environmentalists and fishing industry advocates continue their attack on beneficiaries of Columbia River development; in Judge Redden's court and in the public forum. Not a pretty sight. I am discouraged about the possibility of turning a tide that has run so long in favor of the dam busters. The Bush administration's attempted rollback, BiOp-2004, has already been rejected by Judge Redden. Informed sources expect Redden's decision to survive appeal. The national environmental movement has deployed its best lawyers to the Redden court from Earthjustice, the former Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

Since the early 90s, the national environmental movement's political arm for Columbia River salmon (Save our Wild Salmon) has aggressively advocated dam removal, nationally and regionally. Only this year have we seen organized effort by river users (River Partners) and that group has yet to focus on dam removal. As an amateur journalist, I can personally attest to the dam buster's grip on the media.

If and when beneficiaries of the Columbia and Snake River dams wake up and take the fight seriously, they may need miracles that will no longer come. But, so did the men of the Alamo. One good thing about democratic political battles is they don't shoot the losers - yet. Given a choice (and without the reduced life span) I would rather go down in history with Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett than with Santa Anna.

Other issues and debates are coming. Congress now has meaningful ESA reform before it. New presidential and congressional candidates and their staffs will be forming views on ESA in general and Columbia River salmon in particular. Other ESA train wrecks will happen, most likely in the rural West. An account of whatever eventually happens on the Columbia River can usefully inform those debates, particularly if written from the standpoint of natural resource producers and rural communities, rather than environmental activists and scientific participants in the environmentalist culture.

To that end I continue this series. See you next month.

Related Pages:
Hundreds in Idaho Mourn Former Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage by Jesse Harlan Alderman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/9/6

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
ESA - Playing Another Mind Game
Wheat Life, February 2006

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