Don't Take the Bait on Northwest Salmonby Joel Connelly, AP Environmental Writer
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 9, 2006
When it came to hot-button topics such as global warming or vanishing Northwest salmon, candidate George Bush in 2000 pledged to heed "sound science" instead of environmental alarmism.
The policy since adopted, and applied across a spectrum of issues, might be summarized as "silenced science."
Lately, it seems, the Bush administration doesn't even trust public affairs professionals at federal agencies but is referring all calls to political appointees.
After a recent Portland visit by Council on Environmental Quality boss James Connaughton and a critique by federal fisheries scientists of dams on the Klamath River, the National Marine Fisheries Service has adopted a catch-and-release policy toward members of the press.
In an April 2 article in The Washington Post, regional fisheries service spokesman Brian Gorman hailed a report by experts and a federal judge's ruling that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must limit the irrigation water it draws out of the Klamath in dry years.
"People may look back on this past week and say that is when things really turned around for fish in the Klamath," Gorman told The Post's Blaine Harden.
Later, Gorman told Robert McClure, the Seattle P-I's environment reporter: "I can tell you that I'm not authorized to speak about salmon issues. All I know for sure is there are three people whose names I gave you who are authorized to speak to reporters."
The new policy began, he said, on April 3.
Our redoubtable McClure called Bob Lohn, the political appointee who is Northwest regional administrator of the fisheries service. He was told: "There's no generic gag order."
Instead, there appears to be a specific battening of the hatches. "It was a very conscious decision that as the spokesman on the salmon, on the Klamath River issue, they (D.C. officials) were more likely to be well informed about what was happening in other agencies," Lohn added.
The reality is that the administration's Northwest fisheries management makes the Iraq occupation look like an act of genius by comparison.
The Klamath River, which spans the California-Oregon border, used to be the third most productive salmon stream on the Pacific Coast. One million fish a year returned in the early 1900s.
Last month, with predictions of fewer than 30,000 Klamath salmon, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to practically shut down commercial salmon fishing along 700 miles of the West Coast.
A 2001 drought forced the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to cut back irrigation water to about 180,000 acres in southern Oregon. Political guru Karl Rove was active backstage as the administration hammered out a policy that restored a full allotment to irrigators the next year.
In 2002, however, 33,000 adult salmon died in the Klamath River before they could spawn. The California Department of Fish and Game found that diversions of water for farmers upstream created river conditions that killed fish downstream.
Lately, the pendulum has swung back the other way. A study by the Department of the Interior and NMFS touted decommissioning or removal of aging dams that have cut off 300 miles of spawning habitat since 1917.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found last fall that the administration's plan for the Klamath is in conflict with the "underlying science" of salmon biology. It told the feds to draw up a new "biological opinion."
The federal government is also in deep water on the Columbia River. Three different times, dating back to the Clinton years, U.S. District Judge James Redden has rejected "biological opinions" for the Columbia-Snake River system.
In the feds' most recent attempt, two years ago, a political appointee (and former timber lobbyist) was caught directing NMFS scientists to rewrite sections of the opinion. (A "biological opinion" is a finding on whether actions by a federal agency will put salmon survival and recovery at risk.)
The latest negotiations -- involving the feds, state agencies and Indian tribes -- are taking place against the backdrop of a far-less- than-anticipated, late-arriving spring chinook salmon run in the Columbia River.
Is it the best policy to put political appointees in control of what information gets released? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of NMFS, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have been buffeted by censorship charges.
A senior NASA climatologist and a research meteorologist at NOAA have alleged that political appointees tried to suppress discussion of links between global warming and the increase in Category 5 hurricanes.
The Northwest seems on a collision course between measures that experts feel are necessary for salmon, and an administration that favors irrigators and wants dams to remain in place.
"The biggest casualty in this region has been dialogue between state, federal and tribal scientists: Attempts to reach agreement, or at least clarify issues, have diminished," said Pat Ford, head of Save Our Wild Salmon. "The only venues left are litigation."
Hydropower and irrigation help anchor the economy of the Pacific West. Salmon are a major contributor to our recreation and culture.
Shouldn't the region's public get access to unfiltered information from scientists and professionals, instead of hearing a party line from politicos?
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