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Panel Points Out Flaws, Strengths
of First Subbasin Plan

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - February 13, 2004

The Columbia River Basin's trail-breaking Clearwater subbasin planning committee, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, were left to ponder next steps after their product of more than three years of work was deemed scientifically unjustified.

That judgment came Feb. 6 in what was the second review by the NPCC's Independent Scientific Review Panel of a draft Clearwater subbasin plan. While saying that the revised draft plan missed its primary target -- outlining priorities for fish and wildlife project spending -- the scientists acknowledged its strengths and described paths that Clearwater and other subbasin planners could take to build sound plans.

"It represents a major new step in the Council's Fish and Wildlife Program…." The ISRP said of the Clearwater plan.

However, the draft plan "does not clearly set forth and scientifically justify the desired direction for the subbasin, nor does it describe a prioritized problem-solving approach to restoration and protection," the ISRP wrote. "The Management Plan does not adequately link the characteristics of the ecosystems (described in the Assessment) and how those characteristics will be managed (actively or passively) with current activities in the basin (the Inventory) or with the abundance, productivity, and diversity of organisms."

"These shortcomings have resulted in a subbasin plan that does not identify a prioritized set of strategies and actions that is derived from its Assessment and Inventory. Consequently, the plan provides little decision-making guidance for planners and managers at immediate or longer-term time scales," according to the reviewers. "Thus, subbasin planners still must provide such a prioritization before the next project selection process in order to justify ongoing projects and identify new needed actions, or subbasin/regional administrators will be forced to impose their own prioritization on projects proposed for funding in the Clearwater Subbasin."

The NPCC in 2000 called for the development of approximately 60 subbasin plans that are to guide implementation of its Columbia Basin fish and wildlife program. The management plans were, through identification of past and ongoing work (the inventory) and an assessment of habitat conditions and factors that limit fish and wildlife production, to help the Council prioritize projects for a limited amount of funding.

The vast majority of those plans are in the final stages of development with the aim of meeting a May 28 submittal deadline. The plans are being produced at the local level by groups such as Idaho's Clearwater Policy Advisory Committee, which includes representation from the wood products industry, county government, the Nez Perce Tribe, state agencies, federal agencies and the state's Association of Conservation Districts.

Submitted plans go through ISRP and public review processes before being released in final form. The documents could then be adopted by the Council as amendments to its fish and wildlife program. The Council created the program at the direction of 1980's Northwest Power Act, and amendments must be consistent with provisions of the Act and program.

The Clearwater group launched its effort earlier, late in 1999, and submitted a "final draft" in November of 2002. A largely negative review from the ISRP pitched the planners into a revision phase with $64,000 in funding from the program's subbasin planning budget allotment. In all, $15.2 million was reserved for the subbasin planning processes across the basin.

The reworked plan was resubmitted in November and accepted by the Council. That gives the Council until November of this year to respond to the submittal. The comment period remains open until March 20.

"This is not a show stopper," NPCC senior counsel John Ogan said of the effect of the ISRP's negative comments on the continued development of the Clearwater and other subbasin plans.

"The ISRP is important… but it is just one of the pieces of information that will be looked at," Ogan said. The NPCC staff has not yet completed their review of the ISRP document.

"I want to hear from the Idaho subbasin planners," Ogan said of the need to judge the input from state-level and local planners on the ISRP report. Comments from them and others could be forthcoming before the March deadline.

"We can expect that some of the comments will reference the ISRP report," Ogan said.

"It's a great opportunity for those folks up there to continue to weigh in," Idaho Council member Judi Danielson said. She chairs the Council and the subbasin planning process' Regional Coordination Group. The RCG has at its past few meetings been discussing how it could address legitimate problems with plans that might be identified by the ISRP and others. Contracts that fund many of the related activities expire at the end of May.

Danielson lauded the subbasin planners in the Clearwater and elsewhere and urged them to persevere.

"We do not want them to run in terror," Danielson said, after seeing the Clearwater effort twice panned. The Clearwater committee's chairman, Idaho County Commission Chairman George Enneking, noted in a November submittal letter to the Council that the process involved 67 policy and/or technical meetings, 11 public meetings, 23 draft component releases, eight drafted whole plan releases, and 114 individual review, comment and drafting efforts.

Janet Hohle of the Idaho Soil Conservation Commission staff said that the Clearwater committee members would review the ISRP document and likely decide at its early March meeting how or if to respond during the public comment period. Hohle and the Nez Perce Tribe's Ira Jones are co-coordinators for the Clearwater Focus group that help organize the subbasin planning effort.

"We anticipated it being very much like it was. Their job is to do a critical analysis and when you do that you find something wrong," Hohle said. She said the criticism that the plan did not outline priority needs for the subbasin did not necessarily ring true.

She said she felt the ISRP's complaint was that the plan did not go far enough to define particular issues, geographical areas and species in ranked order.

"We think we did a hell of a job. So we don't feel bad," Hohle said.

Though critical, the ISRP by no means urged that the document be tossed out.

"… the ISRP recognizes that this initial Subbasin Plan and the ISRP review of it will be scrutinized as a model for subbasin plans that are still in development and are to be submitted later in 2004. We encourage planners to recognize the strengths of the Clearwater Subbasin Plan, as well as the ISRP's criticisms of it," the ISRP wrote.

"The November 2003 Draft Clearwater Subbasin Plan is an improvement over the 2002 draft in that it is better organized and starts to link findings from the assessment and inventory into the management plan. It is more readable and cross-referenced than the earlier draft."

The review says the "initial portion of the Clearwater assessment describes the subbasin setting and its general environmental conditions thoroughly and well, and will provide a rich source of reference material for people working in this subbasin for years to come."

"The ISRP believes that the most important points we make concern:

"This last step should be obviously drawn from explicit consideration of alternative possible actions and should show explicit use of, and consistency with, the Fish and Wildlife Program."

The scientists note that an appendix to their report "provides an example of how the Clearwater Subbasin Plan's existing prioritization by PMU (potential management units) could have been extended into more global insights and a set of generalized priority actions at the subbasin level."

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
Panel Points Out Flaws, Strengths of First Subbasin Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, February 13, 2004

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