the film
Commentaries and editorials

Save the Law that Protects
America's Natural Capital

Glen H. Spain
The Oregonian, July 13, 2013

For commercial fishing families, the value of Northwest salmon is no abstract symbol. Salmon mean business.

Fishermen pull in chinook on the Columbia River near Cascade Locks in 2012. (Thomas Boyd photo) In this day and age, it's easy to fool oneself into thinking we humans somehow create wealth in factories or from computers.

But in the end, we are all economically dependent on the same Earth, breathing the same air and drinking the same water. The natural world is the ultimate source of all human wealth -- and our own existence. This is our "natural capital." When we squander that, we are bankrupting future generations and potentially threatening our own survival.

The Northwest's valuable salmon runs are a prime example. For some, salmon are a colorful icon -- a symbol of the Pacific Northwest.

But for commercial fishing families, the value of Northwest salmon is no abstract symbol. Salmon mean business. It's about hardworking family fishing businesses, struggling to survive generation after generation.

So commercial fishermen have a special relationship with the Endangered Species Act. On one hand, we are heavily regulated under the ESA, as we harvest the wealth of the oceans. Indeed, our industry probably has more day-to-day exposure to the ESA than does agriculture, timber or nearly any other industry.

At the same time, the ESA safety net has proved to be the only thing standing against the extinction of these valuable fish species -- and the extinction of our way of life.

Many once-abundant salmon runs are already extinct because of decades of pollution, habitat destruction, and blocked or dewatered rivers. It is, unfortunately, only the ESA that has halted declines of most of the rest of these valuable runs.

Sometimes it's easy to despair over the future of wild salmon, but there are still bright spots. We are restoring the watersheds of the Klamath Basin and the Elwha River. The collapsed salmon runs in California's Central Valley and the Columbia River are slowly improving. Salmon in those rivers would be in far worse shape without the ESA driving much-needed reforms.

Frankly, it's regrettable that we even have to resort to the ESA. We are a well-educated and technologically advanced nation. We should be more proactive. But the sad fact is, sometimes we avoid solving problems until the eleventh hour.

Then the Endangered Species Act is a necessary tool -- all too often, the only tool -- for repairing 150 years of damage done to salmon-producing watersheds. The ESA looks after not only the top-of-the-food-chain species such as chinook salmon, but also the smaller, less charismatic species at the bottom of the food chain, like the Delta smelt. We are all part of the same web of life.

The Endangered Species Act has bought some time for people to solve problems facing America's fisheries and waterways. Today, as it celebrates its 40th birthday, the ESA remains one of the most popular federal laws on the books.

Yes, saving an endangered species can force some people to change the way they do things. And for that, the ESA has earned some enemies. A small cadre of politicians would like to quietly gut the ESA. They don't say it outright, but that is the end result of their piecemeal legislative endeavors.

The American people should reject the false tradeoff between conservation and jobs. In the end, we are all in the same boat. We dare not let it sink. And I, for one, want salmon to still exist for our grandchildren.

Glen H. Spain is Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which fights for the long-term survival of commercial fishing as a way of life.
Save the Law that Protects America's Natural Capital
The Oregonian, July 13, 2013

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