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Commentaries and editorials

Alaska Governor Muddies Waters

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald
- October 26, 1999

In a refrain that seems to be echoing across the nation, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles has told Washington and Oregon to end the "killing fields" of the Columbia-Snake dam system before the states look to further curtail Alaskan fish harvest.

Knowles' letter, released Monday, is another big step by Alaska into Northwest salmon woes as the controversy continues to draw national attention. And it shows growing cracks in this summer's U.S.-Canada Salmon Treaty, a linchpin in regional fish recovery plans.

"There is no question that the federal government and the states of Oregon and Washington have not come to terms with the real problem facing wild Pacific salmon," said Knowles, whose state's economy runs on fish and oil.

"There is great political and economic pressure to do nothing with the rivers and shift the political problem onto the backs of the salmon harvesters," he said.

Knowles pointed instead to what he called the "lethal zone" of fresh water habitat, and said he would not consider any more sacrifices by Alaska fishing families until Washington and Oregon "have fully addressed the threats and obstacles" to salmon survival.

"The wild chinook salmon must survive the 'killing fields' of dams, turbines and reservoirs," Knowles said. "Clearly, fishing is not the problem."

Knowles' letter is another punch in what's turning into an interstate brawl that is likely to show the nation the Northwest isn't close to creating a unified salmon recovery strategy. That's likely to invite congressional intervention - and many expect Congress won't hesitate to dismantle dams if that would stop the financial bleeding into what have been largely unsuccessful recovery efforts.

"Here we have another governor saying the region has failed to live up to its responsibilities," said Chris Zimmer of Save Our Wild Salmon in Seattle. "This escalates the debate."

Curt Smitch, natural resources adviser to Washington Gov. Gary Locke, said the state's habitat issues must be addressed. But, he said, "How we choose to meet our requirements under the ESA (Endangered Species Act), I think should be left up to local interests. I don't think Alaska has any business to say which option is best."

Alaskans fear the National Marine Fisheries Service's biological opinion, due by the end of the year, will ask them to give up more of their harvest than the salmon treaty's "substantial" cuts. In many Alaskan towns, fishing is the main industry and fishermen have felt for years that NMFS is putting the recovery burden on their harvest rather than habitat.

Dale Kelley, president of the United Fishermen of Alaska industry coalition, said if the Alaska fleet stopped fishing for Columbia Basin chinook, fewer than 20 additional Snake River fall chinook would be spared each year. This year, the quota was 195,000 Columbia Basin chinook, she said.

"It feels like we are a smoke screen so that people can avoid doing the right thing, which is improve habitat and fish passage," Kelley said. "All we're saying is get this spotlight off us and shed some light on what is really happening down there."

Prompted by the fishing industry, influential Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens inserted a rider into the Commerce Department spending bill that would exempt Alaska from the ESA if fishermen followed the treaty.

Smitch said Alaska's politicians tried a similar maneuver earlier in the year and Northwest lawmakers teamed with the administration to quash it. "It sounds like the special-interest groups up there are asking for an exemption from the ESA," Smitch said. "Somebody up there got buyer's remorse after the fishing season."

Locke and Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon said in an Oct. 15 letter to Knowles that they were "puzzled" about Stevens' rider and would not support it. The governors also expressed concern because they said salmon treaty parties never discussed or anticipated a congressional move to change the treaty - something every party could conceivably want to do.

Because federal fish agents helped negotiate the salmon treaty, the governors do not expect it to violate the ESA. But Oregon and Washington don't want Alaska fisheries to be off the hook if something changes. "It is bad principle and practice ever to lock away any tool that might be needed to save a threatened species," Locke and Kitzhaber said in a letter to Knowles.

At the request of Locke, Kitzhaber and federal offices, President Clinton is expected to veto the commerce spending bill because of the Stevens rider and other language - a move that could further delay doling out much-needed salmon restoration money to NMFS.

"If we give up the funding now and the agreement goes by the wayside," Locke and Kitzhaber said, "it would put in jeopardy all hard fought success we gained in resolving the major fisheries issues around North Pacific salmon."

Mike Lee
Alaska Governor Muddies Waters
Tri-City Herald October 26, 1999

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