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Get Used to the New, Orwellian World

by Robert Stokes, Natural Resource Economist
Wheat Life, December 2007

To environmentalists, political battles are not fought to end conflict, but to gain advantage for future battles. Victory or defeat
is not measured in specific local consequences, but national gains or losses of legal precedent and political momentum.

Last month (November 2007) I suggested the recent Columbia River salmon recovery plan would probably be the last significant Bush administration action on the topic. We should thank Bush-era political appointees for several years of (relative) peace in the struggle over Columbia River salmon and dams, notably NOAA-Fisheries Northwest Regional Administrator Robert Lohn.

However, we should also discuss how Bush officials could have left a stronger legacy of protection for the Columbia River hydro system and its beneficiaries. Future columns will describe two of my favorite measures - correcting the administrative (so-called scientific) record of Columbia River salmon conservation and invoking the Endangered Species Committee (God Squad).

First some background - "theory" if you wish. Like many Wheat Life readers, you may regard political and legal conflict as an interruption to "normal" life, something to avoid when possible, quickly resolve when not. Get over that! However useful such an attitude is in "real world" business, it is fatal when dealing with environmentalists. To environmentalists, political battles are not fought to end conflict, but to gain advantage for future battles. Victory or defeat is not measured in specific local consequences, but national gains or losses of legal precedent and political momentum.

Once the snake bites it never lets go. Sierra Club founder and environmentalist demigod john Muir died lamenting his failure to stop pre-World War 1 construction of Hetch Hetchy Dam in California's Yosemite Park. Until his death in 2000, longest serving Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower kept a stone from the bottom of Lake Powell to remind him of his failure to stop construction of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado river during the 1950s.

The Sierra Club is still fighting Glen Canyon and Hetch Hetchy! Today, they seek their removal. Success would settle a half century grudge against Glen Canyon and a full century of grievance against Hetch Hetchy.

Economics provide another reason to expect an essentially permanent attack on the Columbia River hydro system. the most visible ;leader of the anti-dam crusade is Save our Wild Salmon (SOWS) headquartered in Boise, Idaho. SOWS also maintains offices in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle and Spokane, Washington. SOWS is a coalition of national environmental groups - Sierra Club, American Rivers, National Wildlife Federation, etc. Most SOWS coalition members also dedicate staff positions to Columbia River salmon issues.

Those jobs depend on a continuing flow of individual contributions and institutional grants. Environmentalists have a special name for the blue whales, fur seal pups, giant pandas and similar critters that populate their media and fundraising messages. According to Wikipedia "charismatic megafauna" are "Animals that have popular appeal and so can form the basis of conservation campaigns and fundraising drives."

To this (lucrative) list we now add Northwest salmon. "[A]n emblem of hope, an object of reverence ... a link to an older mysterious wold ... swimming, spawning, biological coordinates that give us a sense of where and who we are."

High school theme writer carried away with rhetoric? No, Bruce Babbitt, Clinton administration Secretary of Interior and leading fundraiser for the campaign to remove the Snake River dams.

Facing such foes, those who choose to make their living from the land in the century now beginning must do more than keep their powder dry. They must train their sons to do so. Likewise when politicians come seeking votes and financial support. In return for that support, natural-resource producers and rural residents must demand action based on a long and broad view of the contentious road ahead.

From this perspective I explore what (else) Bush-era political appointees to fisheries and environmental posts could have done to strengthen the defense of the Columbia River hydro system. My suggestions are summarized below and will be detailed in future columns.

Expand the administrative (scientific) record

Like other government employees (and employees generally), federal fisheries biologists are required to take orders from their superiors, including political appointees serving at the pleasure of the president. Early in his administration, President Bush should have more aggressively implemented his repeated declarations of support for the Columbia River hydro system. One effective means of doing so would have been instructing NOAA_Fisheries to revise and expand its early '90s scientific studies supporting ESA listing of Columbia River salmon.

Multiple assumptions should have been made concerning non-scientific issues, such as policy goals, the basis for classifying salmon populations, and duration of forecast periods and acceptable recovery measures. In each instance, at least one scenario should have been designed to insure continuation of all elements of the Columbia hydro system (including the four lower Snake River dams) in essentially their historic mode of operation. The instructed task of NOAA-Fisheries scientists should have been reconciling that presidentially directed goal with pertinent scientific standards and ESA legal requirements.

Invoke the 'God Squad'

Officially known as the Endangered Species Committee, the "God Squad" has legal authority under ESA to resolve endangered species issues from the standpoint of the entire public interest, notably including costs and other economic consequences. For better or worse, ESA implementing agencies (NOAA-Fisheries in this instance) are denied that discretion. "Critters first, last and always" is their ESA mandated motto.

The "God Squad" consists of presidential appointed cabinet officials and regionally effected governors. President Bush should have ordered the Secretary of Interior to invoke the God Squad to consider exempting Columbia River salmon from ESA jurisdiction.

Pronouncements by environmentalists and NOAA-Fisheries biologists notwithstanding, exemption from ESA jurisdiction would not lead to extinction of any meaningfully distinct salmon population. Rather, it would conform law to biological and economic reality: That reality being (properly classified) Columbia River salmon are neither rare nor endangered. They are abundant, biologically diverse and geographically widespread resources supporting modest (though locally significant) tribal, commercial and recreational fisheries.

Stay tuned for details and further justification of these assertions.

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
Get Used to the New, Orwellian World
Wheat Life, December 2007

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