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Commentaries and editorials

Judge Rules Government's
Salmon Plan Illegal

by Robert Duncan
Spero News, May 30, 2005

Could victory for conservationist, fishermen and tribal leaders
lead to higher electricity prices?

United States Federal Court Judge James Redden ruled late last week that the government's salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake rivers is legally flawed in four different respects.

Judge Redden took issue with the federal agencies' assertions that the dams along throughout the Columbia basin were part of the immutable landscape. The judge also said that NOAA's approach stands in sharp contrast to prior opinions' and is insufficient to insure the protection of salmon, did not properly analyze critical habitat for salmon, and is contrary to the law because it does not address the prospects for recovery of the endangered species.

An adult salmon jumps upstream. (Courtesy of Bureau of Reclmation) Liz Hamilton, from the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said the latest decision affirmed "what the low returns of spring chinook have been telling us all for weeks - this plan does not work and it is hurting the tens of thousands of people we employ in the Northwest."

She added, "Our businesses and region have suffered long enough. It is time for real salmon recovery - recovery that increases the number of jobs, the strength of our communities and meets our responsibilities to restore a balance to the Northwest."

While the decision is a victory for sportsmen, conservationists and Native American tribal leaders, it comes on the backdrop of a low Spring runoff that could affect hydroelectric production - and consequently lead to higher electricity prices. Meaning consumers may be more sensitive to pocketbook issues than the preservation of species. That's something to keep in mind, since attention has focussed on four dams on the lower Snake river, and which conservationists and sportsmen claim are threatening the salmon. To remove those four dams would cut federal hydroelectric production in the Northwest by 4 percent.

"We can have both clean, affordable energy and abundant, wild salmon," said Sara Patton, NW Energy Coalition. "All that stand in the way are four dams out of the more than 400 dams in the Columbia-Snake system. These four out-dated dams produce relatively little electricity, and the power they do produce can be easily replaced with cheap energy efficiency and cost-competitive renewable energy facilities that, in turn, will create hundreds of permanent, local family-wage jobs and new farm income."

According to the Rivers Foundation of the Americas, "the Columbia River watershed is a critical link in the mega-linkages of the Pacific flyway and predator migration corridor. It is the nerve center for salmon restoration, and one of the world's most highly manipulated great river systems. The Columbia is one of North America's greatest rivers, winding 1200 miles from Canada to the Pacific, the organization notes, with many national treasures lie within its watershed, including the Hells Canyon and Eagle Cap Wilderness Areas, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, parts of Mt. Rainier and North Cascades National Parks, and, of course, the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. The area involved is comprised of all of Idaho, about 2/3 of Washington, more than half of Oregon, and small areas of Montana and British Columbia, Canada."

The Columbia River Basin is North America's fourth largest, draining about 250,000 square miles and extending throughout the Pacific Northwest and into Canada. There are over 250 reservoirs and around 150 hydroelectric projects in the basin, including 18 mainstem dams on the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake River, according to the US Army Corp of Engineers website, which notes: "Dams clearly have had a significant impact, particularly those that eliminated access to fresh water habitat (preventing adult fish from returning to spawn), and those through which fish passage is provided but at reduced levels from natural conditions."

Scientists say that the Columbia and Snake river hydroelectric dams are by far the leading killers of salmon and steelhead. NOAA Fisheries documents state that the dams are allowed to kill as many as 86 percent of out-migrating juvenile salmon. However, the federal government is not actively considering the removal of the four older dams on the lower Snake River - despite scientists deeming this would be the best and surest way to salmon and steelhead recovery.

This year's low return of spring chinook has hurt Northwest tribal, sport and commercial fisheries, which have been shut down or drastically curtailed. In many places, fishing was closed almost as soon as it opened. With boats docked and guides idle, millions of dollars destined for river communities now and in coming months won't be realized.

"The federal government has allowed the four lower Snake River dams to threaten our jobs and way of life for far too long," said Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Our Northwest leaders have the power to put this region on the right path, a path that leads to stable jobs, good fishing, abundant salmon and places in the outdoors for our families to enjoy. Anything short of that only leads to extinction for salmon and the people that depend upon them for jobs."

Recent studies have shown that restoring healthy runs of wild salmon would benefit the regional economy. With a restored salmon fishery, Idaho alone would see almost half a billion in economic benefit from sportfishing. Similarly restored fisheries in Washington and Oregon would raise the total to almost six billion dollars in economic benefit to the region. In addition, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations estimates that restoration of Columbia and Snake river salmon, would net the region an additional $500 million per year in commercial fishing revenue and as many as 25,000 new family wage jobs.

"What's at stake here is nothing less than the Northwest way of life: abundant salmon, stable jobs and reliable energy," said Jan Hasselman, National Wildlife Federation. "Our vision is for an economically and ecologically recovered Columbia basin. However, this administration's vision for the Pacific Northwest is to spend $6 billion managing the path of salmon towards extinction."

This is the federal government's second unsuccessful attempt at crafting a viable salmon plan.

In May of 2003, Judge Redden ruled that an earlier plan also was illegal and ordered it replaced within the year. In response the federal government issued a new plan in late 2004. Now that the judge has ruled the 2004 plan illegal, he will be considering a request from plaintiffs to establish specific protections for salmon migrating through the Columbia and Snake rivers this summer.

According to Todd True, Earthjustice's lead attorney, the latest legal decision "is a victory for everyone living in Oregon, Washington and Idaho."

"Both sides had their day in court and the Judge ruled that the federal government has shirked its responsibilities to this region and cannot legally manipulate the Columbia and Snake rivers in ways that will drive our salmon to extinction," said True.

Robert Duncan
Judge Rules Government's Salmon Plan Illegal
Spero News, May 30, 2005

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