It's Time to Get Columbia
by Editorial Board
The Obama administration strengthens a federal salmon recovery plan,
endorses its science and identifies dam breaching as a final contingency
It's here now, all of it: the best science on Columbia Basin salmon, a huge commitment to habitat, an unprecedented collaboration among the feds, states, tribes and others along the river, even the distant contingency of dam breaching placed on the table.
So can we get on now with restoring salmon?
For years the plaintiffs, including the state of Oregon, that sued over the federal government's inadequate former plans to restore threatened salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin have insisted that all they want is the best science applied to fish recovery. Well, now they have it.
The "Bush plan" -- the sneering label the plaintiffs put on the federal recovery plan carefully built by federal agencies, most Columbia Basin tribes and all of the Northwest states but Oregon -- has now been endorsed by the Obama administration. The plan has the strong support of Jane Lubchenco, the newly installed adminstrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, former OSU professor and the state's most respected environmental scientist and marine ecologist. The best science, indeed.
The Obama administration has been anything but shy about overturning Bush-era environmental plans, including the sweeping proposal to increase logging on public forests in Western Oregon. But in this case, the new administration took a long, hard look at the plan to restore Columbia salmon, and was impressed by what it saw. That says volumes about the quality and scientific integrity of this new effort to restore salmon runs through new commitments to hydro, habitat, hatcheries and harvest.
Moreover, the Obama administration has strengthened the original plan in ways that should satisfy U.S. District Judge James Redden, who rejected two earlier plans, in 2003 and 2005, and sent a letter to all the parties last May laying out his concerns about the current proposal.
In response, the new plan has a deeper, stronger commitment to habitat improvements, especially in the Columbia River estuary. It also includes new early warning indicators, meant to sound a loud public alarm if fish counts fall, triggering strong contingency actions.
Further, the plan responds to Judge Redden's request that the feds study the feasibility of breaching four Snake River dams, if only as a contingency in the event other measures fail to recover salmon. Environmental groups were upset Tuesday that the Obama plan indentified dam removal only as a final contingency. An alliance of ports, farmers, utilities and others was angry that it was mentioned in the plan at all. In our view, the plan puts dam breaching on the table, but places it exactly where it belongs: As a final contingency, "an action of last resort" that would come into play only after all other efforts to recover salmon have failed and factors such as economic impact have been considered. That's as it should be.
This plan is everything that Judge Redden asked for: it's based on broad collaboration among the feds, states and tribes; it includes strong commitments to habitat, river flow and predator controls; it is backed by $10 billion in spending over the next decade, and it includes triggers and contingencies that further protect fish.
But most important, the plan is predicated on the best science regarding salmon recovery. Before Jane Lubchenco was confirmed as NOAA administrator, she promised to lead with the "best science as our guide." That's what this plan does.
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