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Oregon Seen as Leader in NW Salmon Recovery

by Damon Franz
Greenwire January ?, 2001

The federal plan to restore threatened salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest, released in December, drew significant attention in the national debate over whether four dams on the lower Snake River should be breached for the sake of the fish. But much of the habitat that would need to be restored for salmon recovery is controlled by states, which have drafted their own measures for salmon recovery. The state plans vary not only in their approach, but in the reception they have received from environmentalists and fishing interests.

Oregon was the first of the Northwest states to draft a salmon recovery plan, which the state legislature passed in 1997 to fend off a costly Endangered Species Act listing for coho salmon. And although the plan failed to ward off the federal "threatened" designation for that species or 13 other Northwest salmonids, it has become the driving force for a wide range of on-the-ground salmon restoration measures which have proved successful, at least in winning the approval of environmentalists.

When issuing the executive order that affirmed the legislature's plan, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) said federal agencies were ill-equipped to lead salmon recovery because too much of the endangered salmon habitat rests in private hands, even if the agencies took a strict regulatory approach. For that reason, Kitzhaber said, Oregon intends to "play the leading role in protecting and restoring" its threatened salmonid species by combining regulations with incentives - a carrot and stick approach.

The result of Kitzhaber's and the legislature's vision is the Oregon Plan, a 3,000-page document that coordinates the efforts of federal, state and municipal agencies, independent scientists, private landowners and industry toward a common goal: "to restore populations and fisheries to productive and sustainable levels that will provide substantial environmental, cultural, and economic benefits."

To that end, the Oregon plan authorizes development of specific action plans at the local level, establishes an independent panel of scientists to oversee progress and allows for changes to the overall plan based on the results of scientific study. Three teams of volunteers from state and federal agencies oversee the plan's implementation, monitoring and outreach. A fourth team composed of representatives of Oregon's 92 watershed councils that direct smaller land-based agencies on water quality and other salmon recovery issues.

Following the passage of the Oregon Plan, the Washington legislature passed its own Salmon Recovery Act and established a special Governor's Salmon Recovery Office. The function of that office is to "coordinate and produce a statewide salmon strategy, assist in the development of regional salmon recovery plans, and submit the strategy and plans to the federal government," according to Gov. Gary Locke's (D) office. In addition, the office is responsible for producing the Biennial State of the Salmon report to the legislature.

While the Oregon and Washington plans look similar in several respects - both rely on grants to fund restoration activities at the local level and are subject to review by a scientific panel, for instance - environmentalists and other fish advocates say the two states are quite different in their approach to salmon recovery.

"Governor Kitzhaber should be commended for standing up and saying salmon are a priority and we're going to solve the problem," said Chris Zimmer of Save Our Wild Salmon. "Unfortunately in Washington state we're not getting the kind of leadership we need on salmon recovery on the Columbia and Snake Rivers."

Zimmer and other environmentalists applaud Kitzhaber, not only for being a leader on forming a salmon recovery plan, but also for being the first Pacific Northwest governor to publicly advocate breaching the four Snake River dams.

It is not only Kitzhaber's zeal for salmon recovery that puts Oregon in front of Washington on that issue, however: some activists have been unimpressed with the policy details of Washington's salmon recovery plan as well. For instance, Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited said Washington's plan was originally given a poor rating by a scientific panel.

Nevertheless, the group's Bill Robinson says Washington's plan is still evolving to become better with limited resources. "There are people in the fishery community that don't think the state plan goes far enough or fast enough," he said. "But we find ourselves in the situation where funding is the key. We need more enforcement, better monitoring, more staff, and all of those come back to the legislature and the need for adequate funding. In many situations the department has their hands tied."

Idaho, by contrast, lacks the comprehensive salmon recovery plans of Washington and Oregon. Some would argue such a plan would be irrelevant in a state where the fish are cut off from the sea by dams over the border in Washington. "As far as the recovery actions in the state of Idaho, we have our backyard in pretty good shape," said Mitch Sanchotena of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited. "The limiting factor with the Snake River steelhead and salmon is the fact that 90 percent of these fish perish on their way to the ocean" because of the dams. "Even though all the talk has been about saving fish, what they've been doing has been saving dams."

It is in Idaho, a landlocked state, where the dam issue is truly unavoidable. Even Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, saddled by a conservative administration that does not support dam breaching, says restoring the river's natural flow is "clearly the best biological route to meet that mandate, recover salmon and steelhead, and restore fisheries in Idaho."

And while many assume the new anti-breaching Bush administration and this year's energy crunch have killed the dam issue, Zimmer says it has never been more alive. The recent Biological Opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service puts "the Bush administration in a position to act decisively on salmon restoration or face dam breaching by default," he said.

And the energy situation "could be a real opportunity to change our business as usual approach by asking, 'What can we do to make sure we have power in the future that doesn't threaten salmon?'" he said. "We have a choice to never again have to decide between salmon and power."

Damon Franz, Greenwire staff writer
Oregon Seen as Leader in NW Salmon Recovery
Greenwire, January ?, 2001

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