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Fish Recovery Plans Under Scrutiny

by Cindy Snyder
Ag Weekly, June 19, 2008

SUN VALLEY, Idaho - Even while supporters of plans written to manage the Columbia and Snake river systems for fish recovery efforts were being extolled, environmental groups opposing the plans were preparing to file court challenges.

That action opens the door for U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden to review the plans.

In May 2006, the judge ruled the biological opinion for managing the upper Snake River projects had to be rewritten because the plan relied on the same flawed comparative jeopardy analysis used in the 2004 Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion, which was also thrown out.

Redden wanted the agencies to complete a comprehensive analysis which considers the combined effects of the Bureau of Reclamation projects in the upper Snake and the hydropower systems on the Columbia River on salmon and steelhead species listed as threatened or endangered.

Tom Stuart, director of Idaho Rivers United, was a panelist on a session about the new biological opinions held during the Idaho Water Users Association's annual water law seminar in Sun Valley. The panel was held on Monday afternoon, the same day a coalition of environmental groups announced it would challenge the recovery plans. Environmental groups view the new biological opinions as inadequate and illegal, he said.

One of the greatest points of divergence between the coalition, Save Our Salmon, and the groups who support the plan is over breaching the four lower Snake River dams. Save Our Salmon contends dam removal is necessary; the Bush administration has said otherwise.

"The issue is not about fish, it's about people," Stuart said pointing to a projected $300 million loss on the California coast because of the lack of salmon fishing this year. "This is about the potential destruction of livelihoods for real folks, and real jobs in real towns like yours and mine."

The Columbia River is the largest salmon-producing river and the Snake River system has historically contributed over half of the salmon found in the Columbia. The Salmon River in Idaho historically contributed 40 percent of the spring chinook, 45 percent of the summer chinook and 50 percent of the steelhead.

"We have the greatest salmon-producing river, and Idaho is the mother lode," he said.

The Coalition for Idaho Water issued a statement expressing disappointment in Save Our Salmon's decision to challenge the plans.

"It has been crystal clear for years now that these fringe environmentalists' only interest is in breaching the four lower Snake River dams," the statement read. "So what saddens us the most is that virtually everyone else in the Pacific Northwest region has agreed to roll up their sleeves and work together cooperatively on the salmon recovery issue. But the increasingly isolated environmental fringe has again chosen litigation, a strategy that does nothing to help the salmon-recovery efforts."

That the other players in the Pacific Northwest were on the same page regarding the recovery plans was apparent during the panel discussion at Sun Valley.

John Ogan, an attorney who represents some of the tribes involved in crafting the recovery plan, believes that, if followed, the new plans would allow listed fish species to persist. He said the new recovery plans would complement a new 10-year plan to manage fish harvest in the Pacific Northwest. A fourth document, what Ogan called the fish accords, builds on the other documents.

To get past the acrimony of past discussions, the tribes met with federal representatives and agreed on several things. One of those key points was not to fight about how to run the river system in 2007. Once the parties reached that agreement, it freed them up discuss the recovery plans and what things were needed to get the fish out of jeopardy status.

The fish accords, Ogan said, built upon the recovery plans and identified ways to rebuild stocks. Those accords address what Judge Redden viewed as a major failing in the 2004 recovery plans - that grand plans were made for recovering the species but there was no guarantee the habitat improvement projects would ever be completed. The accord calls for $160 million of funding for fish-habitat improvements during the 2008 to 2010 fiscal years, with $116 of that considered new funding that has an Endangered Species/biological opinion connection.

By agreeing to the fish accords, the tribes have said the plan is good enough for the next 10 years, as long as the federal government fulfills the agreement.

What isn't known now is whether Redden will let the new recovery plans stand. Another unknown is what will happen now that the tribes have agreed to work with the federal government and other players, effectively turning their back on the environmental groups, their previous ally in the fight to restore salmon runs.

The fish accords say breaching dams is "out of the dialog" until at least 2015 to give the plans time to work. If the Snake River stocks that would be helped by dam breaching aren't recovering by 2015, then the tribes can choose to advocate for breaching.

Ogan is optimistic the new plans will work, if Redden allows them to stand. But he also believes the recovery plans, harvest plan and fish accords are like dominos. If one domino is tickled, all four are likely to fall.

"I really believe there is a genuine desire by leadership in the region to create a new paradigm," he said. "And that this new partnership will replace the court as the next driver in fish recovery."

Stuart is also optimistic, despite viewing the new recovery plans as inadequate.

"Everything we've done in the last fifteen years, all the discussions and all the overturned biops are just a preface to the real deal," he said, adding that he expects to see significant progress made in the next 12 months.

He believes wild salmon advocates and water users have a lot in common and can find solutions that restore wild salmon while leaving Idaho's water in Idaho.

Cindy Snyder, Ag Weekly correspondent
Fish Recovery Plans Under Scrutiny
Ag Weekly, June 19, 2008

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