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Salmon: Environmentalists, Tribes Remain Skeptical as White House Touts Commitment to Protecting Fish

by Les Blumenthal, Scripps-McClatchy Western Service
The News Tribune, August 22, 2003

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush visits a Snake River dam today, he is expected to cite near-record runs as a sign that Pacific salmon are on the rebound. But serious doubts remain over the long-term prospects for the fish and the administration's commitment to saving them.

Bush, as part of a swing through Western states this month to defend his environmental record, will be appearing at a symbol central to the debate over salmon. Ice Harbor Dam, east of the Tri-Cities, is one of four dams on the lower Snake that environmentalists and Indian tribes say need to be breached in order to help restore the river to a more natural condition and revive what may be the region's most endangered salmon run.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush came out firmly against dam breaching.

But his administration is conducting a "bottoms up" review of the very plan designed to avoid dam breaching. The comprehensive plan, known as the biological opinion for the Columbia and Snake rivers, calls for improving spawning habitat, increasing river flows and making hydroelectric dams more fish-friendly.

The biological opinion is not the only policy under scrutiny.

The administration is reviewing whether 26 of the 28 salmon stocks, ranging from Northern California to Puget Sound, should continue to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. That review could result in delisting some of the stocks and lifting federal protections for the salmon.

Since Bush took office, his administration also has rescinded critical habitat designation for at least 19 of the runs and is considering changes to the salmon protections included in the Northwest Forest Plan.

Most recently, the State Department has come under pressure to find more than $1 million in funding to head off the possible collapse of a 1985 treaty with Canada that oversees management of the salmon in the ocean.

"No shoes have dropped yet, but there are a lot of shoes in the air," said Kristen Boyels, a lawyer with the environmental group EarthJustice in Seattle who has tangled with the Bush administration in a string of court cases.

All of this comes at a time when more and more salmon are returning to the rivers and streams of the Northwest.

Most scientists, however, say the strong runs are the result of improved ocean conditions and not federal policies. As climatic conditions known as El Niño and La Niña have faded, an upwelling of cold water along the West Coast has produced an abundance of the salmon's favorite foods - krill and smelt.

Even the Bush administration official most involved in developing salmon policy concedes that ocean conditions are the major cause of the improved runs.

"I'm not ready to claim victory," said Bob Lohn, the Seattle-based regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, now known as NOAA-Fisheries. "We are not going to rush into decisions on the future of these stocks based on increased runs."

Without habitat improvements, fish passages at the dams and increased flows to speed migrating juveniles downstream, there are no guarantees the runs would remain healthy when the cyclical ocean conditions again deteriorate.

In addition, roughly 98 percent of the returning fish were raised in hatcheries and are not the wild salmon at the heart of the protection effort. The latest evidence, Lohn said, show the populations of wild salmon have stabilized.

"On average, the runs are replacing themselves," he said.

Environmentalists and the tribes remain skeptical.

"The policies of this administration will not prevent these fish from extinction," said Steven Robinson, a policy analyst with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia. "They are basically doing nothing."

Lohn defended the administration's efforts, saying that most of the reviews were driven by federal court decisions.

While the review of the Endangered Species Act listing of the runs could result in some delistings, Lohn emphasized, "We are not rushing to any conclusions. It's an honest look at the long-term prospects for each of these runs."

There will be a yearlong public comment period after the review is released early next year, he said. The timing puts off any decisions on the listings until after the presidential election.

The review of the Columbia and Snake rivers biological opinion is the result of a "carefully crafted and technical" decision by a federal court judge in Oregon overturning the opinion, Lohn said. But he added that the ruling gave the administration an opportunity to take a "fundamental" look at that salmon plan.

Environmentalists and the tribes say the administration has been quick to settle lawsuits or has refused to appeal decisions challenging salmon policies. Most of the suits have been filed by interest groups aligned with the administration.

"They (the administration) want to take credit for the ocean conditions and squeak by on everything else," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon. "Instead of capitalizing on the good news, they are using it as an excuse to delist, eliminate critical habitat and cut funding."

Ford said the administration implemented less than a third of the measures required under the biological opinion in 2002. The cost of implementing the biological opinion has been estimated at up to $950 million annually, but the Bush administration has been providing $550 million a year at the most, he said.

Lohn dismissed the $950 million estimate as a "back-of-the-envelope rough guess" and said the administration has provided adequate funding and completed most of the required measures.

The biological opinion requires the government to start looking at dam breaching if the runs aren't improving.

"I'm not willing to say we are out of the woods, but the trend is improving," Lohn said.

Les Blumenthal, is a Washington, D.C., reporter for Scripps-McClatchy Western Service
Salmon: Environmentalists, Tribes Remain Skeptical as White House Touts Commitment to Protecting Fish
Tacoma, Washington The News Tribune, August 22, 2003

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