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U.S. gets 'F' on Salmon Restoration in Northwest

by Charles Pope, Washington Correspondent
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 27, 2003

Efforts in Columbia and Snake lack commitment, group says

WASHINGTON -- The government's efforts to pull salmon back from the brink of extinction in the Columbia and Snake rivers are beset by shortages of money and desire, an environmental group concluded yesterday in its annual review of a 10-year campaign to save the Northwest's most recognizable fish.

The analysis by the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition gave the Bush administration an "F" for its performance last year in meeting requirements set out by the ambitious salmon restoration plan. It marked the second year in a row the government earned a failing grade.

In a separate report, the National Wildlife Federation called the salmon effort in the Columbia and Snake rivers "a parade of half-steps and squandered possibilities."

In particular, the federation criticized the practice of barging salmon around dams that block their path to the ocean and to spawning grounds. Barging is a key component of the restoration plan's attempt to allow fish to travel without removing dams.

The federation, however, said it isn't working.

"Salmon barging has proven to be a failure for the fish and for taxpayers," the report said. "The solution to a lethal, degraded river is not to take the salmon out of the river and drive them to the ocean; it is to restore the river. If the dams are breached, salmon will return, fisheries will revive and jobs will follow."

In its report, the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition charged the administration with providing only half the money needed to fulfill the requirements and completing only 27 percent of the milestones.

It said the government did not maintain water temperature and quality as required and failed to restore habitat as required.

"The failures border on a tacit decision (by the Bush administration) to ignore the mandates of the biological plan," said Bruce Babbitt, the former Interior secretary in the Clinton administration who "reluctantly" approved the plan in 2000.

The plan laid out a complicated and costly blueprint for improving habitat, managing dams, controlling water temperature and quality and a host of other steps that collectively would allow the return of bountiful populations of salmon and steelhead.

The plan was conceived as an alternative to removing four dams on the Snake River that most environmental groups and many scientists said was the best and most certain way to bring the salmon back.

"We are in the third year of a 10-year plan, but in reality we're in the 11th hour," Babbitt said as he presented the group's report.

Babbitt said the Bush administration must intensify its effort and accelerate the pace of the plan if it has any chance of realizing its goal.

When he approved the plan, Babbitt said he accepted the word of federal biologists who told him "a major, sustained and unrelenting effort over a 10-year period" would bring the salmon back without breaching the dams.

"We're almost one-third of the way through and the lack of commitment is extremely disappointing," he said.

One federal official responsible for overseeing the salmon effort took issue with the group's analysis, saying much of the work is on track and that the complex mix of science and competing demands requires a longer view.

"It feels a little unfair to be getting final grades before the midterm is rendered," said Bob Lohn, who manages much of the salmon plan as Northwest administrator for NOAA Fisheries, the agency formerly named the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"I believe we are making generally good progress," he said.

For example, Lohn said the criticism of underfinancing the effort is based on soft estimates that were made before a more detailed estimate could be computed based on actual conditions on the ground. That analysis is nearly finished, he said.

According to Save Our Wild Salmon, the program requires $900 million a year and only half of that total has been provided.

"After two years and more than $1 billion spent, we see little return on the investment," the report says. "Given the Bush administration's recent decision to reduce 2003 salmon funding outright, the pattern seems unlikely to change."

Babbitt and other critics said they still believe removing the dams is the best approach even though President Bush has emphatically ruled that out.

That leaves legal action as a potential alternative if progress isn't made in the river basin.

"At what point does failure to comply constitute a violation of the Endangered Species Act?" Babbitt asked. "I'm not in the business of soliciting lawsuits, for the most part, but it's a real issue."

Justin Gould, chairman of the Columbia River Intertribal Commission, also threatened to consider a lawsuit if the administration does not improve.

Gould, a member of Nez Perce tribe, said the report card "exposes the Bush administration's fundamental lack of commitment to Indian tribes in the Columbia River Basin. We've watched the best science become compromised by politics and powerful agencies railroad the best efforts at coordination."

The salmon plan is also under assault from budget watchdogs.

"The federal government has spent almost a billion dollars on the salmon recovery plan with virtually nothing to show for it," said Autumn Hanna, senior policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"Two years ago, federal taxpayers made a commitment to invest in this plan, and time is running out. We need to see a little bang for our buck."

The clearest indication of how well -- or how bad -- the plan is performing will come in September. Under the salmon blueprint, formal progress reports must be submitted in 2003, 2005 and 2008.

These reports, written by the federal agencies involved, are considered a key gauge of the salmon recovery effort.

Charles Pope, Washington Correspondent
U.S. gets 'F' on Salmon Restoration in Northwest
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 27, 2003

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