the film
Commentaries and editorials

What Rubes and Redden Believe
is Part of 'Scare Talk'

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, November, 2007

'Reasonably defined Columbia River salmon populations
have never been at serious risk of extinction

Columbia River salmon recovery planning is all about science and settled law, the latter meaning the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Politics has no place.

At least that's the story the insiders tell the rubes. In reality, all the familiar flavors of American politics are involved in every aspect of salmon recovery planning and execution. Interest group politics means national environmental groups and regional salmon fishermen against regional electricity users, farmers and others. Bureaucratic politics means NOAA-Fisheries and other federal agencies struggling over jurisdiction, power and budgets. Finally, there is a partison politics, national and regional politicians campaigning on the salmon issue and (sometimes) keeping their campaign promises when elected.

The federal government just published its latest try at satisfying Portland federal Judge James Redden. Redden has previously accommodated environmentalists by voiding two government ESA compliance plans for Columbia River salmon. This is probably the Bush administration's last bout with the judge. Check you owen tea leaves to determine whether it will be a new Republican or Democratic administration that makes the next move.

Experience during the last Democratic administration suggests we should expect fireworks if Democrats return to power in January 2009. The Northwest Regional administrator for NOAA-Fisheries is responsible for ESA compliance involving Columbia River salmon. Early in the Clinton administration that position was converted from a civil service post to political appointment. The avowed purpose was increasing White House influence over Columbia River salmon policy. Shortly after that change, attorney Will Stelle moved to the position from a prior job as assistant to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt.

Followers of this column know Bruce Babbitt's attitude toward dams. Babbitt came to Interior from a career that included heading the League of Conservation voters, one of America's most political environmental groups. During and after his tenure as Secretary of Interior, Babbitt has been the environmental movement's foremost spokesman for dam busting, both nationally and in the Northwest for removing the four Lower Snake River dams.

Crafted under Will Stelle's supervision, the Clinton administration salmon plan reflected his former boss's anti-dam philosophy. That philosophy changed (somewhat) when the most explicit anti-dam provisions were removed upon election of George W. Bush, who campaigned against Snake River Dam removal.

We should not consider the latest federal plan the final word. Having followed Judge Redden closely I am pessimistic about his reaction. Environmentalists have already condemned the plan, which virtually assures future litigation, regardless of how the judge reacts.

In many respects the latest plan is what environmentalist detractors claim, a continuation of policies not involving radical hydro system changes. Referred to as the 4 H's, the guts of this salmon plan, like its predecessors, involves salmon saving improvements in management of the (H)ydrosystem, (H)atcheries, (H)abitat and (H)arvest.

What environmentalist critics fail to mention is that the 4 H's formula is working. Reasonably defined Columbia River salmon populations have never been at serious risk of extinction. Environmentalists promoted scare stories have always involved sub-categories of subcategories of overall healthy populations. Notable examples are sockeye and fall chinook. Healthy, wild stocks of both have always been present in the Columbia, though not necessarily in the Snake River.

In the decade and a half since the first Columbia River ESA listing (Snake River sockeye) there has been general improvement in even the split and re-split groupings of salmon listed under ESA. Having made this point repeatedly in prior columns I will not dwell on it further. E-mail me for details if you are interested.

Those improving populations are under-girded by an increasingly effective conservation program, including better dam passage facilities, barge transportation of juveniles and supplementation hatcheries. These cost-effective measures do not seriously impede hydroelectric power production or other economic values produced by Snake and Columbia River dams. The big cost items and, therefore, political flash points are spilling water over dams or flushing it through reservoirs, measures that provide marginal benefits to salmon while imposing substantial burdens on irrigators and hydropower users.

Politics will determine whether we have yet another major battle over removing Snake River dams or otherwise dismantling the Columbia River hydro system. Other potentially crippling measures include reducing reservoir levels behind mainstem Columbia dams (McNary is regularly mentioned) and (as noted above) increasing water allocations for salmon (the crux of Redden court litigation). Taken to extremes, such measures can have essentially the same effects as dam removal.

If we have such a fight, hydro system beneficiaries will have reason to thank the scientists, engineers and technicians who spent the past decade (and more) developing techniques to monitor the effectiveness of salmon conservation measures. Thanks to PIT-tag and other monitoring programs we can now implant multi-generational pedigrees in individual juvenile salmon and track their progress downstream, in the ocean and back as adults. These programs have been in place for several salmon generations, with new data being added annually. That data provides and ever sharper, better documented and generally favorable picture of salmon recovery success.

Facts are the best weapons against scare talk. Expect much of the latter if larger political forces favor dam busting environmentalists during the next few years. Stay tuned, here and elsewhere for counter arguments based on now well-demonstrated salmon-hydro reconciling program.

In the meantime read up on the latest salmon plan at

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
What Rubes and Redden Believe is Part of 'Scare Talk'
Wheat Life, November, 2007

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation