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Salmon Advocates Fight Swift Current

by Larry Swisher
The Register-Guard - July 24, 2001

WASHINGTON - Northwest governors and members of Congress are making little headway in gaining more federal money for salmon recovery without the president's support.

George W. Bush's first budget basically provided level funding to continue efforts to reverse regionwide wild salmon and steelhead declines. So far, Congress has added little to that in this year's series of spending bills for various programs and agencies.

In light of this lack of follow-through to last year's much ballyhooed Columbia-Snake Basin salmon recovery plan, Seattle-area Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., recently revived the specter of dam removal, a last-ditch option that the plan is supposed to avert. With the encouragement of Northwest salmon advocates, McDermott introduced a bill to require federal agencies to develop contingency plans in the event that breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River becomes necessary down the road. Congress still would have to approve such drastic action to prevent extinction.

The drought and Western electricity shortages and price spikes are curtailing Columbia Basin salmon recovery efforts this year. Although hatchery fish are abundant right now, the wild spawners are still in big trouble and their numbers could drop in the next couple of years.

McDermott said Columbia salmon and steelhead runs plummeted after the four federal dams on the lower Snake River were constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, starting in the 1960s, to the point where "now we have a situation where all of these species are either extinct or listed under the Endangered Species Act."

With Bush having said nothing and done little about the problem in his first six months in office, the question is whether he intends to make good on his campaign promise to protect the salmon.

The governors of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana - who support the nonbreaching plan - are concerned. Earlier this month, they sent representatives to meet with Bush's environmental advisers on the issue of whether the new administration is going to implement it.

They took home a letter from Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton pledging general support and cooperation to the states. "All of us need to work together in the region and undertake significant measures to achieve salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest. We recognize that federal funding is one key to the success of this approach," Connaughton said.

But the outcome of that belated statement remains to be seen. "It's very important that we get a commitment for a multiyear budget," Northwest Power Council member Eric Bloch, who represented Oregon, told the Columbia Basin Bulletin, a weekly fish and wildlife newsletter.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush came out forcefully against removing the dams and attacked then-Vice President Al Gore for not ruling out the option.

While he stressed the economic costs of losing the electric power and river barge transportation system, the price tag for other solutions is also huge. The feds' recovery plan would cost the U.S. government and the Northwest an estimated $1.2 billion per year, McDermott said.

Two Northwest senators - Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Gordon Smith, R-Ore. - along with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber have urged Bush to make salmon recovery a priority and to increase federal spending by $400 million next year, to $688 million. But members of congressional appropriations committees say that without a presidential request, large amounts are difficult to secure.

Only one Northwest-related salmon program is likely to see a major increase. The House has passed a spending bill for the Department of Commerce that would double the size of the Pacific Salmon Fund next year to $110 million. Bush's fiscal 2002 budget also proposed an increase, to $90 million worth of matching grants to four West Coast states and Indian tribes for salmon habitat restoration projects. But the Senate Appropriations Committee dropped that to $70 million.

The obvious compromise between the House and Senate is to split the difference, and approve Bush's request, for an increase of about $15 million over this year.

Congress is also likely to provide $5 million in new money to help irrigators install fish screens on water diversions. But again, the money would be spread over several states.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., condemned McDermott's bill and vowed to block it. "Dam removal is a divisive and dangerous concept that should be dismissed once and for all," Hastings said.

But if it turns out to be the only way to prevent extinction, there may be little choice, in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act and other laws, federal treaties with Indian tribes and Canada and decades of political promises. It stands to reason that the government should be prepared to act quickly and to provide economic assistance to states and local communities.

Perhaps McDermott's legislative reminder to Bush and others about what's at stake will light a fire under them to come up with the goods for an alternative.

Larry Swisher , a columnist based in Washington, D.C., writes for Pacific Northwest newspapers.
Salmon Advocates Fight Swift Current
The Register-Guard, July 24, 2001

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