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Salmon and the Perpetual War

by Tracy Warner
Wenatchee World, May 20, 2009

It is happening, again - the litigious life cycle, whereby many lawyers tirelessly make the long and arduous journey to a federal courtroom in Portland, where a judge will dismiss their efforts as unworthy, send them back to try again, demand additional billions in sacrifice from Northwest residents, and suggest that only he and his wisdom stand between Northwest salmon and certain, imminent extinction. It is another phase in nature's perpetual lawsuit. It is predictable and always expensive. The foundation: For salmon extinction is always imminent, no matter how many hundreds of thousands return, and the remedies demanded will have minimal impact, maximum expense, and never, ever be good enough.

The bottom of the cycle was reached Monday when federal District Court Judge James A. Redden sent a letter. Redden is the judge who for many years has presided over the dissection of the federal government's plan to run its many hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers without causing salmon to disappear. The plan, required by the Endangered Species Act, is called the Biological Opinion, or the BiOp. It is the BiOp that decides how the river will run, how salmon will be treated, what we will do to help them and who will pay for it all. Over the years BiOps have been compiled with great effort, lawsuits inevitably filed in challenge, hearings held, after which Redden rejects the plan as woefully inadequate, issues stern lectures and dire warnings, and orders everyone to try again. The judge has rejected BiOps dating back to the Clinton administration, but for the latest there had been high hopes. It was compiled with great collaborative effort, attention to the latest science, promised $1 billion a year in spending, and for the first time had the support of most Northwest tribes, previously major antagonists. And there was joy in March when Redden indicated the new plan was "very close" to being good enough. Just that hint was a breakthrough.

Then Monday came the letter, and hopes were dashed. The judge says he remains dissatisfied. More, more and more of every kind of salmon-enhancing effort will be required regardless of effect. And he will demand a plan to breach the four federal dams on the Snake River, as a contingency, should unreachable goals not be met. This letter was greeted with hallelujahs from environmentalists nationwide, for whom dam breaching is the ultimate goal and the dream that keeps them in business. From the rest, you could hear the collective groan. Redden is going to do it again.

Wrote Redden: "With a commitment to these additional and specific mitigation actions, independent scientific review, and the development of a contingency plan, the parties and the entire region may be able to avoid the additional costs and uncertainty of yet another round of consultation and litigation. Federal defendants have spent the better part of the last decade treading water and avoiding the obligations under the Endangered Species Act. Only recently have they begun to commit the kind of financial and political capital necessary to save these threatened and endangered species, some of which are on the brink of extinction. We simply cannot afford to waste another decade."

Waste? The biggest salmon runs in 70 years came in this decade. Billions were spent to improve fish passage at dams, reaching the point where salmon survival equals or surpasses undammed rivers. For every dollar spent on electricity, 20 percent goes to salmon. Most salmon runs are gaining strength. They are not at the "brink."

The $1 billion a year is not good enough. Redden's list of demands was described by one observer as "more of everything." It will never be good enough, because then the dance will end. The salmon will survive, even thrive if left to it, but the judge, the tribes, the environmentalists who derive their sustenance through the courtroom and the orders that flow from it, will be at a loss. The judge is going to make demands that, physically and politically, cannot be met. The nonsensical dam breaching "contingency" will be rightly fought. The Northwest will be ordered into perpetual legal warfare. That is what they want.

Related Sites:
Judge Redden's letter
Count the Fish updated annually

Tracy Warner, Editorial Page editor, (509)665-1163
Salmon and the Perpetual War
Wenatchee World, May 20, 2009

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