It's Public's Turn Nowby Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - December 2, 2004
The federal government ought to revive salmon runs in the Northwest. But the Bush administration has taken two giant steps toward a very different goal: keeping enough threatened fish to avoid extinction.
At the same time, federal officials promised that a whole range of laws, treaties and other commitments bind them to promote salmon recovery.
It's a confusing mosaic for anyone seeking a good picture of where the government is headed. But it's likely that we are reaching a point where only public consensus can push the experts to focus on creating robust, self-sustaining wild fish runs or consciously letting some species become museum pieces -- either living tokens or dead.
On Tuesday, federal officials revised a document on Snake and Columbia river salmon runs, dismissing the possibility of removing four Snake River dams. Dam removal, in our view, ought to be avoided by preserving and genuinely reviving fish runs now listed under the Endangered Species Act. But taking discussion of removing the dams off the table, as the feds have done, removes a dramatic element that has helped focus attention on achieving good environmental results with the dams in place. We fear the change will reduce the political motivation to spend money on assuring fish recovery.
Almost at the same time, officials also announced plans to severely reduce the amount of habitat they regard as critical to salmon and steelhead across the Pacific Northwest. In addition, they said, the protection of some important habitat in the Puget Sound region can't be justified economically.
The habitat changes will be the subject of extensive public hearings. But the likelihood of public testimony making any significant difference must be regarded with some skepticism. In announcing their position on dams, officials acknowledged a large public response urging them to maintain the possibility of dam reversal.
Bob Lohn, Northwest regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, made reasonable arguments that the decisions were guided by careful readings of law and science. Bush administration policy on the environment -- specifically, fearsome ideological distaste for a strong ESA -- also seems certain to have been a factor.
Environmental and tribal groups may take the dam questions back to court for judicial interpretation. But judges, lawyers and scientists face their own limits in settling the issues. At some point, the public must decide whether it wants real salmon runs or mere replicas of the Northwest's heritage.
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