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Commentaries and editorials

Salmon Recovery Rules Keep Changing

by Editors
Tri-City Herald, December 10, 1999

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the ongoing saga of how to save endangered salmon is that some of the players keep trying to bend the rules for their own ends.

But it is in adhering to the rules of the game - that scientific arguments win over political rhetoric - that the best outcomes will be realized.

A case in point is the Army Corps of Engineers decision to release the results of its $20 million, three-year study on the Snake River dam options without a preferred alternative. When the study, which is expected to be released this month, was originally commissioned, it was intended to offer a conclusion.

The corps' decision has rankled many in the region who have been expecting the corps to make a recommendation. Bruce Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance wants the corps held to its original plan that the study would include a specific recommendation.

Lovelin feels that, if the corps is forced to come up with a preferred option, it would be on the side of keeping the dams intact. And he fears that a study with no alternative will extend what already has been a long decision-making process, perhaps making it more vulnerable to political winds that always seem to gust during election years.

That's a valid concern, especially as environmental groups are changing the rules by making public appeals outside the formal decision-making process laid out by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Several - including American Rivers, Columbia-River Intertribal Fish Commission, National Wildlife Federation, Save Our Wild Salmon, and Idaho Rivers United - have pooled money to pay for full-page ads in East Coast newspapers that are aimed at convincing Vice President Al Gore to make dam breaching an issue in his presidential campaign.

Increasingly, as evidence builds that dam breaching won't be necessary, those groups are moving away from biological arguments to political ones.

Meanwhile, another group, Common Sense Salmon Recovery, is pursuing the right course in trying refocus decision-makers on the original rules of the game - the Endangered Species Act - which it feels have been lost in the interpretation.

Comprising real estate agents, farmers, builders, counties and politicians, the group, in a lawsuit, is posing an intriguing question about whether the federal policy of not counting genetically identical hatchery fish when determining wild salmon runs is actually consistent with the law. They contend the ESA makes no distinction between wild and hatchery fish - no more than it would make a distinction between wild buffalo, once pushed to the brink of extinction, and those who live their lives in pens.

So far, the cities, farms and other developments of the Great Plains have not been condemned so wild buffalo can roam there free again.

Common Sense Salmon Recovery is posing this critical question, among others, to try to make sure that salmon recovery decisions, whether they are over dam breaching or condemnation of private property, are made in the right - and legal - context.

That's an important question about the rules of the game - and one of many that deserve an answer before the decision-making process goes much further.

Salmon Recovery Rules Keep Changing
Tri-City Herald, December 10, 1999

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