Fisheries Official says Salmon Plan "On Track"by Matthew Daly, Associated Press
Lewiston Tribune, February 27, 2003
WASHINGTON -- Despite a judge's ruling striking down a salmon recovery plan, a top federal official said Tuesday that government efforts to recover threatened Pacific Northwest salmon are "largely on track."
Robert Lohn, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries, said a 10-year plan adopted in late 2000 is adequate to restore threatened salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest.
"It's our belief that the basic structure of the biological opinion is succeeding," Lohn said, referring to the federal name for the salmon plan. "In general, fish runs are improving and the kinds of actions we expect to take place are taking place."
Lohn's comments, after a Senate hearing Tuesday, appear to contradict a federal judge's ruling last month that the salmon plan violates the Endangered Species Act.
In a May 7 ruling, U.S. District Judge James Redden of Portland said there is no certainty that the government's proposed recovery steps -- primarily improvements to fish habitat and hatcheries -- will succeed in time to save disappearing salmon.
Redden ordered the fisheries agency, formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to rewrite the plan within a year. He has not ruled on a related request by environmentalists to eliminate the plan while it is being reworked.
Environmental groups have said the ruling will force the Bush administration to reconsider the politically explosive issue of breaching four federal dams on the Snake River -- an action environmentalists have sought for years.
The Bush administration opposes breaching, as do governors of the four states covered by the salmon plan. At a meeting this month, Democratic Govs. Gary Locke of Washington and Ted Kulongoski of Oregon joined Republican Govs. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho and Judy Martz of Montana in calling for a "balanced" strategy that excludes breaching the four Snake River dams.
Environmentalists called that approach -- and what they called the Bush administration's "stay the course" policy -- inadequate.
"Staying the course means the ship of salmon recovery will hit the rocks and break apart," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save our Wild Salmon, an advocacy group.
He and other conservation groups urged Congress to sharply hike funding for salmon recovery and force other changes, including restoration of migratory habitats.
But Lohn said drastic measures were not necessary. While pledging to abide by Redden's order, Lohn said the judge focused on "specific technical issues" that did not refute the intent or effectiveness of the original plan.
At a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works fisheries subcommittee, Lohn said it was too early to tell whether the 10-year plan will succeed. But he noted that all but seven of 124 actions required as of this year have been implemented as expected or with only minor changes.
Recent trends for salmon are encouraging, Lohn said: For the third straight year, officials expect near-record runs of salmon to pass through Bonneville Dam on their way up the Columbia and Snake rivers to spawn. In 2001, almost 2 million chinook, sockeye, coho and steelhead headed upstream -- the most in six decades.
While most of the improvement is attributable to favorable ocean conditions, Lohn said he was "firmly convinced that the additional protection and mitigation measures being implemented under this biological opinion ... are playing a vital role."
Environmentalists and fishing groups scoffed at that, saying Redden's ruling shows that federal efforts to recover salmon are failing.
"He says the plan is largely on track. I say it is poorly funded and considerably off-track," said Glen Spain, regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Instead of taking a defensive stance, Lohn and other federal officials should look at Redden's ruling "as an opportunity to finally get it right" on salmon recovery, Spain said.
Environmentalists also criticized the Bonneville Power Administration, which has announced it will spend a maximum of $139 million per year on salmon recovery through 2006, down from an expected $186 million a year.
Northwest Indian tribes estimate at least $240 million is needed for salmon and say BPA's ongoing financial woes are hurting recovery efforts.
BPA chief Stephen Wright said the agency is committed to meeting its obligation to fish and wildlife, "while still keeping our eye on costs." BPA has recommended a 5 percent rate hike as of October, down from a projected 15 percent increase a few months ago.
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