Judge's Decision Poses Threat for Salmon Planby Editors
Tri-City Herald, May 25, 2003
A federal judge earlier this month reopened the question of what the Northwest will do to ensure the survival of salmon.
The wrong answer: Less than we are doing today.
But that is what the response could be if U.S. District Judge James Redden reignites the political debate over breaching the four lower Snake River dams.
Redden's May 7 ruling that the U.S. government's plan to save Columbia and Snake river fish runs is lacking could turn out to be a blessing or a curse, depending on the government's response.
On one hand, the decision could allow the Bush administration to refine the 3-year-old plan it inherited. Bob Lohn, the feds' Northwest salmon recovery czar, has the right qualities to make the plan more effective and defensible. Lohn has a bent toward collaborative solutions and a thorough understanding of the Endangered Species Act and salmon recovery efforts.
But on the other hand, depending on how far Redden takes his disapproval, he could reopen the ugly fight over the Snake River dams, a battle the Clinton administration halted by issuing the federal salmon plan in 2000.
That fight, which pitted west-side activists against Eastern Washington farmers and other interests, was counterproductive.
Not one fish was saved with the money and time that went into media events and lobbying efforts from both sides. Any benefit salmon recovery received from its elevated political profile was obliterated by the polarization that kept people in their corners rather than at the negotiating table.
Now the Northwest is at risk of having to re-engage. The judge gave Lohn's agency a year to rewrite the 2000 federal salmon plan, called the biological opinion or "bi op" for short.
But, in the meantime, some environmental groups want Redden to invalidate the 2000 plan and all of the measures it prescribes to help fish. They apparently want fish protection by lawsuit. Already, the National Wildlife Federation and others have notified federal agencies that oversee irrigation projects and hydroelectric dams that they intend to sue.
That approach wouldn't win the drastic measures that environmentalists want but will invite further skirmishes likely to stall progress on salmon recovery.
It is important to understand that Redden's ruling was not a statement about whether the fish plan is working, but rather whether it will work.
In other words, he did not assess whether plans to restore habitat, adjust hydropower operations and reform hatcheries are adequate to save salmon. Instead, he opined that the fish plan, as written, did not provide enough assurances from the federal government that these remedies will actually happen.
That's a meaningful distinction, because there has been progress under the existing fish plan. Of 124 various actions outlined in the plan, only seven are behind schedule after nearly three years, and only two of those are significant, according to Lohn.
The plan's basic premise -- that dam breaching will not be considered if the region can make enough progress on helping fish in other ways -- is still a good one. It has kept pressure on utilities, irrigation districts and other entities, while giving them enough breathing room to try to work with one another. From Walla Walla to Umatilla to Yakima, the region is seeing collaborative partnerships come together.
Adjustments to the current biological opinion will be needed to satisfy Redden's concerns, but changes that threaten to topple the carefully crafted web of alliances will only harm salmon.
The region and fish will be better off if the federal government can rework its salmon blueprint assured that existing work is continuing and without the threat of a free-for-all.
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