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Bush Seeks to Shrink Habitat for Salmon,
Keep Dams Intact

by Associated Press & NY Times
The Register-Guard, December 1, 2004

The Bush administration on Tuesday proposed cutting the habitat federally designated critical to the recovery of threatened and endangered salmon by more than 80 percent in the Northwest and 50 percent in California, focusing protection on rivers where the fish now thrive.

Also on Tuesday, the Bush administration ruled out the possibility of removing federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to protect 11 endangered species of salmon and steelhead.

In an opinion issued by the fisheries division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the government declared that the eight large dams on the lower stretch of the two rivers are an immutable part of the salmons' environment.

Based on public comments received over the next six months, the critical salmon habitat could be reduced even more, said Bob Lohn, northwest regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for saving salmon from extinction.

Large areas could be taken out where state and federal habitat protections are already in place, such as national forests covered by the Northwest Forest Plan, and places where the economic benefits of development outweigh the biological benefits of habitat.

As a result of a lawsuit brought by the National Association of Home Builders, NOAA Fisheries agreed to reconsider critical habitat designations for 13 groups of salmon in the Northwest and seven in California that were listed as threatened or endangered.

The critical habitat proposal pleased the home builders association, which has been chafing under the costs of getting federal permits for development in wetlands.

``Recognizing the importance of economic costs and trying to minimize the impact on industry in areas where there are low values to species and high economic costs are well in line with NAHB's policies,'' said Michael Mittelholzer, director of environmental policy for the association.

Based on the standard that critical habitat should provide for recovery, not just survival of a species, the critical habitat designation originally included rivers accessible to salmon, even if no fish occupied them, and covered most of Washington, Oregon and California and parts of Idaho.

On the question of dam removal, NOAA Fisheries released the final version of its latest court-ordered plan for operating hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

This $13 million weir is being fabricated at a Vancouver, Wash., shop and is to be installed at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River next spring. Endangered fish, the opinion said, can be protected by a variety of measures, including carrying fish around dams and building weirs - a new technology that works like a water slide - to ease young fishes' journey through dams as they swim downstream to the ocean. The total cost of the 10-year effort was projected at $6 billion. Assuming annual expenditures of $600 million, this represents a slight increase over existing spending for this purpose.

``It is clear that each of the dams already exists, and their existence is beyond the present discretion'' of the federal agencies to reverse, the opinion said.

The decision is a departure from the Clinton administration's approach to salmon protection. In 2000, it adopted a policy that allowed for dam removal, although only if all other measures had failed to protect the fish.

The biological opinion must gain approval of a federal judge before going into effect.

The Bush administration opinion, first released in draft form in September, provoked immediate outrage on the part of environmentalists, some tribal groups and a commercial fishing group, who see it as another in a series of federal actions weakening protection for the salmon that are an integral part of the regional identity of the Northwest, and whose numbers have been decimated over the decades by overfishing, dam construction, industrial pollution and suburban sprawl.

Environmentalists and Indian tribes continue to believe removing four dams on the lower Snake River is the best way to restore Columbia Basin salmon.

``The tribes made treaties 150 years ago to carry on a way of life,'' said Olney Patt Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. ``Now we see the federal government turning its back on that commitment and sacrificing salmon for the operation of the dams.''

Commercial river users were pleased.

``The new baseline which includes the dams in place should help focus the region on real solutions rather than shifting attention into a division fight to breach dams or don't, where millions of dollars has been spent over the last 10 years,'' said Glenn Vaneslow of the Northwest Waterways Association, which represents grain growers, towboat companies, and utilities.

Critical habitat designations for salmon, including metropolitan areas of Portland, Seattle, and Sacramento, were dissolved in 2002 after the National Association of Home Builders filed a lawsuit arguing that an analysis finding no significant economic impact was inadequate.

A new economic analysis found salmon protections cost the Northwest economy about $223 million a year, with no significant economic benefits.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said the economic analysis failed to take into account the benefits of a commercial fishing industry once worth $1 billion a year.

``Salmon have been reduced to a small part of their habitat, and that's why they are endangered,'' said Patti Goldman, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental public interest law firm in Seattle. ``They should be asking what amount of habitat salmon need to recover and they are not asking that question.''

Lohn said the reduction was largely due to using maps with finer detail and limiting the designation to good habitat salmon actually occupy.

Lohn said protection for salmon would not be reduced by the habitat reductions, because developers on private land needing federal permits and projects on federal lands still have to consult agency biologists to assure they did not harm salmon.

Earlier this year the fisheries division proposed including fish bred in hatcheries along with their wild cousins when calculating whether a salmon species is still endangered.

Environmentalists say that the administration is retreating from the goal of recovering salmon to robust populations, settling for the status quo.

One representative of the National Wildlife Federation said the letter to the citizens does not have the standing of the formal biological opinion, and as such, represents no legal commitment. John Kober, the wildlife program manager in the group's Seattle office, said, ``What we'd likely find if this plan were carried out in 10 years is exactly where we are today - fish hovering near extinction thresholds and never getting one step closer to recovery.''

The National Wildlife Federation, along with the state of Oregon, successfully sued the Commerce Department, parent of the fisheries service, winning a judgment in 2003 that found that the Clinton policy, which included the possibility of dam removal among other remedies - was too vague and did not go far enough to protect the fish.

That judgment, by Judge James Redden of U.S. District Court, opened the door for the Bush administration to revisit the issue and produce the opinion announced on Tuesday.

The Associated Press and the New York Times contributed to this report.
Bush Seeks to Shrink Habitat for Salmon, Keep Dams Intact
The Register-Guard, December 1, 2004

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