Bush vs. Salmon:
by Register-Guard Editorial
Tuesday was a lousy day for wild salmon - and for those who treasure the iconic fish that are integral to the identity of the Northwest.
Two separate actions by the Bush administration severely weakened federal protections for salmon species whose populations have been depleted for decades by development, logging, fishing, farming, pollution and dam construction.
In the first, the administration announced that it is dropping protections for up to 90 percent of waters designated as "critical habitat" - waters deemed necessary for survival and recovery of declining Northwest salmon and steelhead runs. The change, which also affects 50 percent of habitat areas in California, will clear the way for increased development along the streams and rivers where protected fish live. More areas may be stripped of habitat status after public hearings are held over the next six months.
In the second action, an opinion by the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared that federal dams do not jeopardize salmon by blocking their migration. As a result, it said the eight large dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers should not be removed to protect 11 endangered species of salmon and steelhead, even as a last resort. Instead, the government will rely on alternative strategies, such as building fish weirs and moving fish around dams.
Combined with earlier moves, such as a proposal to count hatchery fish in determining salmon protection, it's glaringly clear that the administration's interest in salmon recovery stops at lip service. These new policies will diminish the odds of survival of wild salmon runs and hasten the deterioration of the habitats where they live.
A lawsuit by the National Association of Homebuilders prompted the decision to radically shrink federally designated salmon habitat. It complained that a Clinton administration plan had arbitrarily imposed protection on 150,000 square miles, including many areas that scientists had not determined to be essential for fish survival.
While adjustments to the Clinton plan were in order, removing such a huge percentage of habitat runs starkly counter to the federal Endangered Species Act. The law requires that imperiled species be protected regardless of economic impact and that federal agencies designate the "critical habitat" necessary to their survival. Such draconian reductions also ignore scientific evidence that habitat protection dramatically enhances prospects for species recovery.
Meanwhile, the decision to declare dams permanent fixtures represents a radical shift from the Clinton administration's approach to protecting salmon, which allowed for dam removal as a last resort.
The government's reliance on alternatives to dam removal may suffice at a time when optimal ocean conditions have boosted fish populations. But it's far from certain that they will continue to do so when less favorable conditions return. By taking dam removal off the table, the administration is eliminating what could be the last option for survival of some salmon species.
The courts are likely to reject this deeply flawed plan. In 2003, U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled that the Clinton policy didn't go far enough to save the fish. He recently expressed skepticism about the Bush administration's plan, warning that it could be headed for a "train wreck." More litigation is also a near certainty over the decision to scale back habitat.
Over the past four years, the Bush administration has perfected a strategy of dismantling environmental protections, while insisting that it's being, as the president is fond of saying, "a good steward of the land."
Bush's new salmon policies show just the opposite is true. Congress and the public should demand that the administration abandon its sham of a salmon recovery plan.
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