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Commentaries and editorials

Regional Program Emphasizes Habitat

by Larry Cassidy
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 4, 2000

Six years ago, the Northwest Power Planning Council endorsed Snake River reservoir drawdowns in a revision of our Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. It was front-page news across the Northwest.

Last month we revised the fish and wildlife program again, this time without drawdowns or dam-breaching. Compared with the media frenzy of 1994, it seems as if no one noticed.

No breaching, no news?

Clearly, Snake River dam-breaching is a lightning rod. No salmon recovery issue has attracted as much attention. Yet if a breaching decision were made today it would have virtually no impact on near-term efforts to rebuild the Columbia Basin's faltering salmon runs. Even if the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, decided today to breach them, it would be years before Congress would authorize and appropriate the first dollar and even longer before the first shovel of dirt would be removed.

We need action now. So while the fight over dams continues, my colleagues and I at the council are pursuing near-term actions to improve the plight of salmon and other fish and wildlife in the basin.

We are required to review and update our fish and wildlife program at least every five years, and to base revisions on recommendations from state and federal fish and wildlife agencies and Indian tribes in the Columbia River Basin.

The revised program addresses the hydropower system, including the four dams on the lower Snake River. The council assumes the federal government will not authorize breaching the dams, at least in the near term.

However, if the status of the dams changes in the next five years, we will take that into account. Another specific planning assumption in the revised program is that mainstem hydropower operations and fish passage efforts should be directed at promoting natural river processes where feasible, while being consistent with the council's legal responsibility to assure the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply.

The 2000 Fish and Wildlife Program has a strong habitat emphasis. The program relies heavily on protecting and improving habitat as the most effective means of restoring and sustaining fish and wildlife populations. Because some of the greatest opportunities for improvement lie in the tributaries and subbasins, the program seeks habitat improvements outside the hydrosystem to offset some of its impacts.

The program also promotes changes in the way fish hatcheries are operated, tying fish production to habitat improvements and harvest policies. The program supports rebuilding fish populations that spawn naturally while allowing for increased harvest where feasible. Harvest and hatchery policies would be linked more closely, as there is no advantage to artificially increase fish populations for harvest if harvest is restricted by the presence of weaker stocks. Finally, consistent with its habitat focus, the program will be implemented through locally developed subbasin plans. Through these plans, which will be developed over the next three years and amended into the program, well over $100 million a year will be directed to improve local conditions and local populations of fish and wildlife, including endangered species.

This is a big job, as the Columbia Basin has more than 50 subbasins. But it is important, and will bring on-the-ground experts in the region together to craft subbasin plans that will yield results. Many states and other entities in the Columbia Basin are now developing or have developed recovery plans, and we intend to use and incorporate those wherever possible.

Subbasin planning provides an opportunity to make near-term progress in protecting and recovering fish and wildlife populations in the Columbia Basin.

That's a goal everyone should be able to support. I encourage all interested citizens to get involved in this process so the results are truly from the "bottom up." It is where the real work will be done.

Related Links
Northwest Power Planning Council:
Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program:

Larry Cassidy, chairman this year of the eight-member Northwest Power Planning Council, an interstate compact agency for four Northwest states.
Regional Program Emphasizes Habitat
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 4, 2000

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