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Groups to File Suit Over Latest Salmon Plan

by Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer
The Columbian, June 17, 2008

Back to court, again.

Environmental groups will sue the federal government over its latest plan to balance imperiled salmon with the operation of hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River basin. Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation groups, announced on Monday its intention to mount a legal challenge against the Bush administration's latest effort.

This time, however, conservation groups won't have the support of many of the same tribal groups that have in the past pushed for breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River.

Earlier this year, four Columbia basin tribes reached an agreement with federal authorities to stay out of court for the next 10 years. In return, the government agreed to provide $900 million in hatchery improvements, stream restoration work, screens to protect fish and additional spillway weirs on some of the dams.

"This is the most aggressive array of habitat actions in the basin's history," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland.

Hudson said the agreements, also signed by the fish commission, provide the certainty that was lacking in previous dam-management plans. The Bonneville Power Administration, he said, will account for the money when it sets wholesale electricity rates for customers such as Clark Public Utilities.

U.S. District Judge James Redden faulted previous federal plans for making big promises for hatchery, habitat and hydrosystem improvements - with no assurance of actually paying for it. In December, Redden hinted darkly at serious repercussions if another plan falls short.

"I instructed federal defendants to consider all mitigation measures necessary to avoid jeopardy, including removal of the four lower Snake River dams, if all else failed," Redden wrote on Dec. 7. "Despite those instructions, the (biological opinions) again appear to rely heavily on mitigation actions that are neither reasonably certain to occur, nor certain to benefit listed species within a reasonable time."

The tribal agreements provide that certainty, Hudson said.

"They are binding agreements, the equivalent of binding contractual agreements between federal action agencies and the signatory tribes," he said. "It would take profound changes in governance or economics to upend these agreements."

Even so, the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition contends that the best available science suggests breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River represents the best hope for salmon. Opening political as well as legal fronts, the coalition intends to hammer home its message by hauling a two-ton, 25-foot-long steel and fiberglass salmon to Capitol Hill today.

Previously: On May 5, the Bush administration met a court-ordered deadline to deliver a dam-management plan that complies with the Endangered Species Act to conserve imperiled wild salmon.

What's new: The Save Our Wild Salmon coalition on Monday announced that it intends to challenge the legality of the new plan in court.

What's next: The matter is likely to land in front of U.S. District Judge James Redden, who has been skeptical of past federal efforts to comply with the law.

Erik Robinson Columbian staff writer
Groups to File Suit Over Latest Salmon Plan
The Columbian, June 17, 2008

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