Salmon Won't be a Player in Bush's
by Eric Barker
Officials on both sides of the fight over the effect of dams on salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers said new rules pushed through by the Bush administration Thursday might have little affect on the ongoing legal battles.
The U.S. Department of Interior announced it is poised to publish new rules that would no longer require federal agencies to always consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether proposed federal actions — such as timber sales or the licensing of new power plants — might harm protected species.
Under the new rules, federal agencies proposing a project will not have to consult with agencies responsible for protecting fish and wildlife. But to avoid consultation, the agency proposing the action, called the action agency in Endangered Species Act lingo, would have to determine it is not likely to have a detrimental effect on threatened and endangered species.
Such a finding is unlikely for the operation of dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers where it is established that hydropower projects, without mitigating actions, harm fish.
"There is no way the operation of dams is not going to be an action that adversely effects the salmon," said Todd True, the lead attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental group suing the government over its plan to reconcile dam operations with the ESA.
Earthjustice, representing a coalition of environmental and fishing groups along with Oregon and Indian Tribes have successfully argued in court the actions are not enough. A federal judge has twice overturned the government's plan to operate the dams. A third case is currently pending before federal Judge James Redden in Portland.
But Rob Rivett, president of the Pacific Legal Foundation based at Sacramento, Calif., thinks the new rules will have little effect on the salmon and dams debate. The PLF often argues on the side of the government and has brought several lawsuits of its own opposing protections for salmon.
Rivett said the new rules will change little even in other issues. He contends federal action agencies have always been able to sidestep ESA consultation when they determine themselves a project is not like to harm threatened or endangered species.
But the timing of the changes is significant. The changes, which will go into effect in about 30 days, were completed in just four months. But they could take President-elect Barack Obama much longer to reverse.
Obama has said he would work to reverse the changes. But because the rule takes effect before he is sworn in, he would have to restart the lengthy rulemaking process.
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