Bush to Dramatically Reduce
by Craig Welch
The Bush administration plans to reduce by more than 80 percent the miles of rivers and streams it designates as critical to the recovery of troubled Northwest runs of salmon and steelhead, and plans to cut such habitat protections at the region's military bases.
The administration also will study whether it should scale back similar protections on thousands of additional miles of streams protected under the Northwest Forest Plan, which imposed logging restrictions on federal land to help bring back spotted owls.
In a new, narrower interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, the Bush administration yesterday said for the first time that it wants to safeguard as "critical" only those waterways currently occupied by salmon and steelhead — not areas that might be considered part of a fish's historic range.
The plan isn't scheduled to become final until next summer.
The move comes as the administration, in a separate action, finished a Columbia River Basin salmon plan that concludes major hydroelectric dams no longer jeopardize the survival of wild fish runs. That means federal fishery officials have officially dropped dam removal as an option in the multibillion-dollar effort to recover the basin's wild salmon and steelhead, reversing a Clinton administration decision made four years ago.
Administration officials said these changes would have little impact on efforts to recover more than three dozen runs of salmon and steelhead in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. But they were unable to pinpoint which fish species — or which river systems — would see the most dramatic changes in habitat protections.
Officials acknowledged that Mark Rutzick, a lawyer who had sued the government over salmon protections for years on behalf of the timber industry, helped design the habitat plan. Last spring, Rutzick was appointed a special counsel to the fisheries service for salmon recovery.
Environmentalists said the critical-habitat plan was an alarming new turn in salmon recovery and were suspicious about the motives.
"It's a very disturbing proposal that radically limits the potential to recover salmon and steelhead, and sets a horrendously low standard for wildlife and habitat protection," said David Hogan, urban-wildlands program coordinator at the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed hundreds of lawsuits to protect habitat for endangered species.
But home builders and a conservative legal foundation, which have pushed for years to prevent fish recovery from tying up road construction and other building projects, were pleasantly stunned by the reversals.
"That's a huge change, and it sounds promising," said Russell Brooks, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which often represents industry groups in lawsuits over the Endangered Species Act. "I think the agencies are finally starting to look a bit more realistically at not duplicating efforts to protect species."
At issue is a designation unique to the act dubbed "critical habitat." The act requires the government to designate lands as critical habitat if they are "essential to the conservation of the species."
Such a designation often covers hundreds of thousands of acres, and does not typically affect most homeowners. But it does trigger significant reviews anytime the government wants to build something in that area, or anytime a private citizen seeks a federal permit to disturb a wetland, for example.
Developers and farm groups often despise critical-habitat designations because they can dramatically slow or change major construction projects, or limit water diversions.
Environmentalists encourage the designations, arguing that they force the government to do a detailed review before taking actions that could forever change habitat for creatures on the brink. Environmental groups have been accused of using habitat designations as de facto ways to stop logging, mining and other land uses.
The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, has tended to side with the industry groups, often delaying critical-habitat designations until forced to adopt them by courts.
In September, the Bush administration pared critical-habitat designations for protected bull trout by nearly a half-million acres in four Northwest states, arguing that an economic analysis showed the wildlife benefits weren't worth the costs.
Courts spurred action
Yesterday's action came in response to a series of court decisions that said the federal government must consider the economic cost of designating critical habitat.
The National Marine Fisheries Service did not do so in 2000 when it designated tens of thousands of miles as critical for California and Northwest salmon species, based on rough estimates of salmon populations in 150 watersheds. So it agreed to revisit the financial issues.
Yesterday, Bob Lohn, Northwest regional administrator for the fisheries service, said salmon-habitat designations in the Northwest cost the economy about $223 million.
The argument between the administration and environmentalists boils down to this: Should habitat be protected only where the fish still thrive — or where the fish could someday go?
Lohn said the move to reduce critical habitat was largely a function of more precise mapping.
Instead of designating all reaches potentially accessible to troubled fish, as the agency had done in 2000, it focused only on areas where the fish were known to exist.
"By incorporating more accurate data, we found the area actually occupied by salmon [and steelhead] was one-fifth as large as in the 2000 designations," Lohn said, saying the new area covered about 27,000 miles of streams.
It also eliminated habitat designations on military bases, from Fort Lewis to the Bangor submarine base in Kitsap County to Bremerton, citing national security.
Environmentalists immediately attacked the plan as inadequate.
"I don't understand how they can lose 80 percent of the area just by using finer-scale maps," said Patti Goldman, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice. "The shrinking itself is alarming, but the purpose of critical habitat is to get us to the point of recovery. How are we going to have enough habitat to get there if we limit it to only where the fish are now?"
But Timothy Harris, legal counsel for the Building Industry Association of Washington, said it was about time the government stopped overreaching to protect salmon.
"The original document was clearly flawed," he said. "It was an absolutely ridiculous document. This is a step in the right direction."
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