Feds' Plans Won't Help Save
by Editorial Board
The feds promised to spend $900 million Monday - without having to make a hard decision.
The federal government committed to more than 200 fish and wildlife projects, benefiting the Columbia River basin's salmon and steelhead, and other fish including sturgeon and lamprey. The feds followed up Wednesday with a 10-year, $65 million deal for hatcheries, habitat improvement and water purchases in Idaho.
These aren't necessarily bad projects; some might actually be good for the region's ecology.
But these plans fail to address the problems facing Idaho's endangered salmon. Worse than that, the tribal deal marginalizes the groups that are pushing the feds to address the biggest problem facing Idaho salmon: the four federal dams on the lower Snake River.
Here's the short version of the tribal deal. Four Indian tribes in Washington and Oregon secured funding commitments for wildlife projects downriver. In exchange, the tribes agreed not to oppose the feds' dam operations - or argue for dam breaching in federal court. Three of the four tribes - the Warm Springs, Yakama and Umatilla tribes - had opposed the feds in court.
The tribes get money for their wildlife projects, and the feds get some political cover. And the Bonneville Power Administration's consumers will pay some as-yet undetermined price. "Our cost structure will be higher than if we didn't have this agreement," BPA Administrator Steve Wright told the Seattle Times.
To their credit, Idaho's Nez Perce Tribe has so far refused to cut a deal with the feds. Tribal leaders recognize the obvious and share the consensus view of scientists: The lower Snake dams are the biggest impediment to Idaho salmon migrating to and from the Pacific Ocean.
Dam removal may be the only way to save Idaho's wild salmon. It should not be used as a bargaining chip to procure federal funding. Any tradeoff that takes dam breaching off the table is inherently a bad deal for Idaho - and one that serves to further divide the region's salmon interests.
But there's more. These settlements pour ratepayer money into dozens of hatchery projects. Instead of focusing attention and resources on saving wild salmon - and the hardy genetics that have made these ocean-going fish an enduring icon of the Northwest's rivers - the feds want to prop up fish numbers by producing hatchery fish that might actually weaken the salmon stock.
As we first said editorially in July 1997, the best path to salmon preservation combines dam breaching with a phaseout of hatchery operations. This week, the region has taken a step backward - or, more accurately, two steps backward.
Collaboration has been the watchword of the week. "We came to the table with the federal agencies as courtroom adversaries," Warm Springs tribal chairman Ron Suppah said Monday. "We leave that table now as partners." Normally we would favor negotiation over litigation. When the end product threatens Idaho's fish, we cannot.
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