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Commentaries and editorials

Mixed Signals on Salmon

by Editors
Tri-City Herald, December 7, 2004

Federal agencies administered doses of common sense and nonsense to Northwest salmon recovery last week.

NOAA Fisheries issued a salmon recovery plan that excludes the option of breaching the four lower Snake River dams since federal agencies involved -- the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation -- cannot order the dams' destruction.

That is a practical move that keeps talk of dam breaching from distracting the region from its focus on recovery measures that can be accomplished.

Unfortunately, the federal government didn't stop there. The same day, NOAA fisheries announced plans to cut about 80 percent of the area it had considered critical habitat for troubled salmon and steelhead runs. The new approach would safeguard only those areas currently occupied by endangered fish, rather than the areas where they historically lived.

You don't have to be a skeptic to notice the apparent inconsistency. It's as if the federal government is saying recovering troubled fish runs is possible, but we shouldn't hold our breath.

How else should the region view two competing policies that would have taxpayers spend millions on bringing fish closer to their historical abundance while allowing the destruction of habitat where those healthier runs might live?

Fortunately, the critical habitat policy will be subject to the region's scrutiny over the next few months before the federal government decides on a permanent rule. The feds likely will hear that it makes little sense to go from protecting as much habitat as possible to protecting the bare minimum.

Fish runs never will occupy all the habitat they once did. But a reasonable approach would plan for fish runs to reinhabit some of their historical area.

The Endangered Species Act requires the government to designate lands as critical if they are "essential to the conservation of the species." It's a safe bet that habitat where salmon are likely to return if the government's recovery efforts are successful would be considered essential.

(AP Photo) President Bush speaks about salmon-recovery issues at Ice Harbor Dam near Burbank, Wash., Aug. 22, 2003. Not planning for that return undercuts confidence in the new federal salmon recovery plan, or "biological opinion."

That recovery plan is deserving of such confidence. Its critics focus on what's missing -- dam breaching. The last biological opinion -- issued in 2000 by the Clinton administration -- kept dam breaching on the table but at bay, triggering its study if other measures did not work.

In the new plan issued last week, NOAA Fisheries assumes the dams stay because they existed before the Endangered Species Act kicked in its protections for fish. Bob Lohn, regional director for NOAA Fisheries, argues dam breaching doesn't belong in a list of the federal agencies' planned recovery actions since it's up to Congress to make a breaching decision.

Critics should remember why the agency has to write the salmon recovery plan in the first place. U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland had told the federal government that the 2000 plan was flawed because it partly relied on recovery measures that were uncertain to occur.

How much more uncertain can you get than an action that none of the federal agencies can take, and even if they did propose it, would never find its way through a Republican Congress or across the desk of a president who pledged the Snake River dams would not come down on his watch?

If uncertainty was the flaw in the old biological opinion, then NOAA fisheries has gone a long way toward fixing it by focusing on practical efforts that can show results. Now it needs to adopt the same assumption of success in its map of critical salmon habitat.

Mixed Signals on Salmon
Tri-City Herald, December 7, 2004

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