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Judge Orders Salmon Plan Revision

by Chris Mulick, Herald Olympia Bureau
Tri-City Herald, May 8, 2003

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the government must redraw its plan to ensure recovery of fish runs in the Columbia Basin.

U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ruled the plan produced by NOAA Fisheries in December 2000 -- known as the biological opinion -- included remedies to comply with the Endangered Species Act that are not certain enough to be implemented.

He agreed with environmental groups that the government's plan improperly relies on remedies that are to be implemented by nonfederal entities, including states and tribes.

The environmental groups that brought the lawsuit say the ruling should rekindle discussion about breaching the four Lower Snake River dams.

"If you're going to look at all options, bypassing dams certainly would be one of them and might be at the top of the list," said Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice.

A hearing has been scheduled for May 16 to discuss efforts to re-write the plan. The plan relies on a strategy of overcoming fish kills at dams with scores of habitat improvement projects and various other restoration activities in river tributaries.

Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, told the Herald editorial board Wednesday that strategy isn't likely to be changed as a new plan is written.

"I think you'll be seeing the same basic concept," Lohn said. "We can have healthy fish runs with the dams in the place. No one argues the dams are an improvement for fish, but can you conduct other activities that sustain healthy fish runs? Yes."

Agricultural groups, including the state Farm Bureau, reacted positively to the news, but for a different reason than environmentalists.

The ag groups believe a new review that considers the strength of fish runs in the past few years since the plan was adopted will offer additional protection for the dams' roles in generating electricity, transportation and irrigation.

"The last time I looked, we had record salmon runs," said Darryll Olsen, representing the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. "I think the situation speaks for itself."

Although Lohn acknowledges Redden's ruling speaks to potential holes in how the plan could be implemented rather than how it is being implemented, he said his agency will use its progress to support its argument.

Lohn said only seven of 124 various actions outlined in the plan are behind schedule and only two of those are significant. And of another 75 actions that aren't bound to a schedule, implementation has begun on 60 of them.

"We see a high level of activity and we see weak runs recovering," Lohn said. "Those two things give me a very strong basis for believing we are doing the right thing."

But True argued the agency will have to come up with something new.

"The burden is on the federal government to show Snake River salmon can recover without removing the Snake River dams," added Michael Garrity, a conservation associate with American Rivers. "They're going to have to come up with measures no one's come up with yet."

Chris Mulick
Judge Orders Salmon Plan Revision
Tri-City Herald, May 8, 2003

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