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Salmon-Recovery Plan Gets Mixed Review

by Solveig Torvik, Editorial Board Member
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - December 22, 2000

Inter-Tribal Fish Commission calls the strategy 'business as usual'

Federal agencies released their long-awaited final plan for recovering Columbia/Snake river salmon stocks yesterday, which does not include immediately breaching dams.

Reviews were mixed.

"It's inadequate and illegal. It's a product we will fight on the ground and in the courts," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the four treaty tribes on the river system -- the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs.

"It's far less than the sum of its parts. At its most optimistic, this plan will preserve business as usual on the Columbia River," Hudson said, adding that it is "illegal in the eyes of treaty law."

The commission asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs, one of the nine federal agencies in the salmon recovery caucus, to withhold its support from the plan.

As expected, the plan does not include breaching of four Snake River dams as a first option. The tribes have advocated breaching.

"We're still making up our minds" whether to support the plan, said Jim Le Bret, natural resource branch chief at the Portland BIA regional headquarters. That decision will depend on whether the plan accommodates the agency's responsibilities under the treaties, he said.

But environmental groups -- which said the new plan contains a trigger that will result in earlier breaching of four lower Snake River dams if the less drastic remedies in the plan don't work or aren't implemented -- were more measured in their response. They said the plan, while not perfect, warrants funding and implementation.

They praised the agencies for moving up the decision date for dam breaching to as early as 2003; the draft delayed that decision for five to eight years. They also praised the improved performance standards that are to be used to ascertain whether the plan is working.

The Columbia River Alliance, which represents navigation, electrical utilities, forest products, industrial, agricultural and other river user groups, praised the plan as "comprehensive."

"Barring a successful legal challenge and a radical shift in science, we are comfortable that dam breaching will not occur," said the group's executive director, Bruce Lovelin.

Donna Darm, the National Marine Fisheries Service acting regional director, said, "We've done so many things wrong to these fish" that to have a "tunnel vision focus on dams ignores all the other insults to these fish that need to be addressed."

Darm insisted that "public sentiment against dam breaching did not play a role." Instead, she said the science showed "dam breaching by itself would not achieve recovery. Dam breaching is not the most effective method for recovering the fish.

"Breaching those dams remains an option if the recovery efforts don't meet strict performance standards," Darm added.

The cost of the plan, which increases the amount of hydrosystem water to be used for fish, was pegged at $352 million a year.

It requires hydroelectric dams in the Columbia basin to limit operation during migrations to the ocean and to spawning beds.

The additional 60 megawatts per year of lost generating capacity, added to the water that BPA already has been dedicating to fish since 1995, translate into an average loss of 900 megawatts per year "or a little more than 10 percent of the capacity of the system," said acting Bonneville Power Administration head Steve Wright.

The updated plan calls for improving habitat in tributaries where salmon spawn as well as in estuaries where they grow before moving to the ocean. It also calls for improving the water quality in the mainstems of rivers that all salmon use to migrate to the ocean and spawning beds.

However, the federal officials said the plan does not require that the polluted Columbia River be brought into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, though providing cleaner water for fish is a stated goal of the plan.

On federal lands, the plan calls for familiar remedies such as removing fish barriers such as dams, installing screens over water diversions, improving water quality and restoring riparian areas along streams. For state and private lands, it calls for working with owners, who may be eligible for federal funding assistance, to improve conditions.

Hatchery reforms include steps to minimize harm to wild salmon. Rather than focusing on producing fish for harvest, they will serve as safety nets to prevent extinction of weak stocks.

Harvest levels of protected runs will remain capped at current levels. Further steps, such as selective harvesting that avoids endangered stocks, may be taken to minimize harvest of protected fish.

"The tribes have shown some reluctance to pursue these methods, but that may be something that's in the cards for the future," Darm said of selective harvesting.

The plan released yesterday is the culmination of two years of review -- and rewriting -- by federal agencies responsible for protecting endangered salmon.

"The strategy calls for immediate actions to restore critical habitat, reform hatchery operations, limit harvest, improve river flows and modify dams and their operations. If it is funded and implemented as written, this strategy will reverse the decline of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead over the next 10 years," said George Frampton Jr., President Clinton's chief environmental adviser and chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality.

The first review will come after three years instead of five under an earlier version. That will be followed by assessments at year five and year eight. If specific goals are not met, the plan calls for "more aggressive action" to be taken.

That approach addresses one of the main worries from environmentalists -- that the question could be studied to death.

"This strategy recognizes that the long-term survival of these species requires effective actions in the next few years," Frampton said.

"It establishes a program to review implementation in 2003, 2005 and 2008, with clear, objectively measurable biological and physical standards to gauge the success of these actions and tangible consequences for failure, including seeking congressional approval to breach dams," he said.

If the plan is carried out, Frampton added, "Pacific Northwest salmon can thrive again."

Restoration blueprint

Solveig Torvik is associate editor of the Post-Intelligencer's Editorial Page and member of the Editorial Board.
Salmon-Recovery Plan Gets Mixed Review
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 22, 2000

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