by Editorial Board
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notified U.S. District Judge James Redden on Tuesday about what it plans to do to save endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
Trying to guess how federal judges will rule is risky business. But it seems likely that Redden will not reject the Obama administration's plan as he has earlier recovery plans devised in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Earlier this year, Redden appeared ready to reject a second Bush administration plan, but the Obama administration requested additional time for revisions. The judge consented, but he warned that a revised plan must satisfy the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act and leave all recovery options on the table -- including breaching, if necessary, four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River.
The Obama administration left intact broad swaths of the Bush administration's plan, a decision that dismayed some conservation groups. But it made some critical improvements, responding to Redden's calls for extra measures to protect salmon by including an additional $940 million in habitat improvements and expanding efforts to control predators and invasive species.
The administration also proposed extensive scientific research and monitoring, and set biological "triggers" for additional conservation measures if the numbers of endangered fish fail to reach biological benchmarks.
Those are indeed significant changes. But the most important change -- the one that Redden has made clear is essential to any plan securing his approval -- would leave open as "a last resort" the possibility of removing dams if certain fish populations decline to historic lows.
The Clinton plan held open that possibility, but the Bush plans did not, relying on the bizarre premise that the dams are permanent fixtures of the ecosystem and therefore not subject to removal if it would help endangered salmon runs.
It remains to be seen if the Obama administration has gone far enough in addressing the judge's concerns. The revised plan is an improvement, but it adopts the Bush administration's standard for measuring success -- that fish be "trending toward recovery," a vague requirement that is troublingly open to interpretation.
The Obama administration's plan orders the Army Corps of Engineers to begin outlining the studies that would be needed to breach the dams. While that's a welcome change from the Bush administration's refusal even to discuss dam removal, the judge might decide that ordering a study of potential future studies does not meet his criterion of leaving all recovery options fully on the table.
Redden has said he intends either to accept or reject the new plan and does not intend to seek revisions. That's understandable. The fate of salmon has been litigated for too many years. It's time for resolution.
But the revised plan appears closer than any of its predecessors to meeting the judge's criteria. With a few changes -- for example, ordering the full environmental and economic study of lower Snake dam breaching -- the plan could be strengthened significantly. Such a study would answer long-disputed questions over the potential effects of dam removal on the region's economy, communities, power needs and much more.
The prospects for the Obama administration's plan to succeed in Redden's courtroom are enhanced by the presence of former Oregon State University professor Jane Lubchenco at the helm of NOAA. A career marine ecologist, she is widely regarded as a champion of science, and like Redden, she's an ardent defender of salmon.
Lubchenco says she believes the administration's new plan meets Redden's requirements for ensuring salmon survival. "We believe the time has come to get out of the courtroom," she says.
With some final adjustments, the new salmon plan should pass muster with Judge Redden, and Lubchenco and the Obama administration should have a chance to prove that their strategy can bring salmon back from the brink.
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