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Pressure Still on Dams to Save Salmon

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, November 17, 1999

Efforts by federal managers to include harvest, hatcheries and habitat in the regional salmon recovery plan have not erased the bull's eye environmentalists have drawn on the four lower Snake River dams.

"The agencies are simply trying once again to dodge their legal responsibility to restore healthy runs," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, in response to a long-awaited report released Tuesday on how salmon runs can be restored.

Few fishing and conservation groups even bothered to credit the work of the nine-agency federal caucus that officially released its report Tuesday in Portland - except to agree factors other than dams also must be changed to restore salmon.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission responded to the report with threats of a lawsuit if the government attempts to restrict the tribes' last commercial fishery on the Columbia River.

"They continue to offer tribal harvest, once again, as a conservation option, while their dams, land management and treatment of fish in hatcheries continue to kill 90 percent of the salmon," said Donald Sampson, fish commission director. "We won't stand for it."

The new menu of recovery measures - called the Four H paper for harvest, hatcheries, habitat and hydropower - foreshadows a heavy federal hand in the Northwest in coming years regardless of the four lower Snake dams.

Nonfederal dams, irrigators, private landowners, anglers and tribes are all part of the potential solution, fish managers said.

"There is going to be a whole new population out there that is going to scream 'Not me, not on my shoulders,' " said Charles Hudson, fish commission spokesman. "We look forward to this being an argument not about dams but about salmon. ... Suddenly, you are going to have an awful lot more stakeholders in this and I think that will be good for the debate."

The National Marine Fisheries Service's in-house science team - bashed by some as being a political answer machine - doesn't suggest removal of the four lower Snake River dams to be quite as important for fish survival as it is to regional science groups.

For some fish stocks, "Dam breaching may not be necessary and may not be sufficient," said Will Stelle, NMFS regional director, summarizing the agency's report.

That appears true for Snake River spring-summer chinook, one of the most endangered salmon populations in the Columbia Basin. "With or without dam removal, harvest restrictions may be needed for years," the report stated, noting sockeye follow the same general pattern.

For fall chinook, however, NMFS predicts taking out the dams would likely have a direct benefit - although planning models show harvest reductions or other management options also may do the job.

At the Columbia River Alliance in Portland, director Bruce Lovelin expressed relief that federal agencies had broadened their target beyond dams. He leads one of the few groups organized to protect the interest of river users such as navigation, utilities and labor.

"Although dam breaching has not been eliminated as a possible future option, the federal agencies have removed it from its 'silver bullet' status to one of several means to aid recovery," he said.

"This new proposal will undoubtedly ruffle some interest group feathers, but unless we adopt a plan that improves salmon survival in all aspects and areas of endangered salmon's life cycle, our success will be uncertain," he said.

Stelle said he hoped the paper will be the basis for the regional debate about salmon. "Whether or not we are successful will depend the quality and durability of commitments here in the Northwest," he said.

But restating well-known options isn't what interest groups wanted.

"It was very remedial," Hudson said. "By this time we need to know from the federal agencies what are you going to do. We need more answers, not questions and what-if scenarios."

Part of the frustration is that the government is continuing to delay taking a stand on the dams. Stelle said repeatedly Tuesday that the options don't reflect a recommended plan of action by federal agencies - that won't come for months.

Col. Eric T. Mogren, deputy commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said Tuesday that his agency's review of the lower Snake River due for release next month will not include a preferred action for the dams, and he added that the agency doesn't have a clear idea of what should happen. "There is no slam dunk ... on whether the dams should stay in or the dams should come out," he said.

Idaho fishing and conservation groups used Tuesday's report to call for the attention of the state's farmers, a heavy hitter in state politics. "Idaho now faces a clearer choice than ever between bypassing dams or losing our water and dealing with tougher land use restrictions," said Scott Bosse, conservation scientist with Idaho Rivers United.

Mitch Sanchotena, of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon, said "any attempt to shift the burden of salmon recovery from the federal hydro system onto the backs of Idahoans must be made politically unacceptable by our elected leaders."

by Mike Lee
Pressure Still on Dams to Save Salmon
Tri-City Herald, November 17, 1999

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