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Roadmaps to Recovery

by Robert Speer
Boise Weekly, December 16, 1999

Mapping Out How to Keep Salmon and Steelhead from Going Extinct

How complicated is the effort to save declining salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River basin? So complicated that federal agencies have now changed the name of their most recent study from the "4-H study" to the "All H's study," to avoid confusion.

You can't blame them. The issue is plenty complicated as it is, without people thinking it has something to do with farm kids raising goats and pigs.

That became more than apparent on Tuesday, when fisheries experts from the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) were in Boise, talking about efforts to save the fish.

Speaking at a lunchtime forum at Louie's Restaruant were Danny Consenstein, Columbia River coordinator for NMFS, from Seattle, and Witt Anderson, of Walla Walla, fish program planner for the Corps of Engineers and head of the Hydropower Work Group for the Federal Caucus. That last group is comprised of representatives of the nine federal agencies with some responsibility for fish recovery.

The very fact that nine federal agencies are involved, as well as state governments, Indian tribes, various economic interest groups and the environmental community -- as well as several environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act -- is part of the reason coming up with a way to save the fish is difficult, the two men said.

Another reason, said Constenstein, is that the fish themselves are complex. Their anadromous life cycle includes hatching and living in mountain streams, followed by long journeys to the ocean, a three- or four-year stay in the ocean, and then another long journey back to their birthplaces to spawn. Some scientists have said that such anadromous fish are "the most difficult species to deal with," he said.

Complex or not, the issue has to be faced, he noted. Not to do so would result in the inevitable extinction of at least the dozen Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead stocks now listed as threatened or endangered, including four species in the Snake River.

What the Federal Caucus is trying to do, Consenstein said, is come up with a set of alternatives based upon the "All-H scenario," as it's now being called. The "H" stands for hydropower, hatcheries, harvest and habitat, the four factors influencing the health of the fisheries.

For each of them, the caucus has come up with a list of possible alternatives. The most controversial set of alternatives has to do with hydropower, and specifically four dams in eastern Washington on the Lower Snake River. There the alternatives are:

  1. to maintain the current program of barging salmon smolts through the many miles of slack water, as well as making some improvements to the process;

  2. implementing an aggressive program to get the juvenile fish past the dams, including augmenting water flow substantially; and

  3. breaching the four dams and restoring a free-flowing river.
Finally, there is a single set of "integrated alternatives" that encompasses all of the others. Which of thes alternatives is chosen will determine how the region goes about saving the Snake River salmon and steelhead. The choices are:
  1. to rely primarily on breaching the dams and less so on the other "H's";

  2. to focus on cutting back harvesting dramatically;

  3. an "aggressive non-breach" approach; and

  4. "maximum protection," which means doing everything possible to save the fish.
All of these alternatives have been finalized and will be released as a draft environmental-impact statement this Friday, Dec. 17, Consenstein announced. After that, the caucus will begin a series of public hearings around the basin region in February and March.

In its draft EIS, Anderson said, the caucus is doing something "unusual but not unheard of": not recommending any particular alternative. "Our conclusion was that it would make better sense to put all of our analyses on the table and then go out and get regional feedback before picking our preferred alternative."

A revised draft EIS that incorporates the public response will be released in May, Anderson said, and at that time the Corps of Engineers will make a recommendation on whether to breach the dams.

Someone in the audience asked what happened to the so-called PATH process, in which fisheries scientiest used computer models to come up with the best solution -- and decided it was breaching the four dams. "It appears the NMFS has stage a coup" of the PATH process, the questioner charged.

Not so, replied Consenstein. There were shortcomings in the PATH process, he said, largely because it focused exclusively on the four dams. "We needed a larger framework, so we started a broader biological analysis" that brings in other agencies and interest groups, including Indian tribes.

Another person asked about ocean conditions' impact on fish. Yes, they have an impact, Consenstein replied, "but there's not much we can do to change that." It's a factor in deliberations, he said, but not something to be included among the alternatives.

What will it take, another questioner asked, to meet the condtions of the Endangered Species Act? Whatever it is, the draft EIS to be released Friday won't make the call, he replied. "It's not a roadmap to recovery," he explained, "but it should help the region to create a roadmap to recovery."

Robert Speer
Roadmaps to Recovery
Boise Weekly, December 16, 1999

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