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Reaction Varied on Feds' 4-H Message

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 19, 1999

Those who follow Columbia River Basin salmon recovery efforts had a mixed reaction to a federal agency caucus' outline of fish and wildlife management options presented Tuesday in Portland.

But they were unanimous on one topic: Someone must take the reins if a plan is to be defined and implemented to revive fish populations.

Twelve salmon and steelhead "Evolutionarily Significant Units" and seven resident fish and other aquatic species in the region have been listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Columbia Basin recovery issue "cries out for leadership," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, a regional organization of economic and community groups including agriculture, navigation, forest products and other industrial interests.

The list of recovery options to manipulate harvest, habitat, hatchery practices and hydrosystem displayed in the federal "Four-H working paper" are sketchy at best, Lovelin said. But the agencies' expressed intent to focus public debate, and eventually coalesce public opinion on a single, comprehensive plan, is worthy.

The paper's call for the public and state and local governments to make stronger recovery commitments could be viewed in two ways, Lovelin said. "Is this leadership, or is this punting" the responsibility away? The CRA prefers the former view and intends to follow the lead and join public discussions of the Four-H options.

"This is something we support. We think it's about time" that regional discussions again look beyond dam breaching in search of recovery options, Lovelin said.

"Although dam breaching has not been eliminated as a possible future option, the federal agencies have removed it from its 'silver bullet' status to one of several means to aid recovery," Lovelin said. The new plan points to hatchery and harvest changes that that NMFS scientists say could be vital in affecting recovery, he said.

"The new proposal will undoubtedly ruffle some interest group feathers, but unless we adopt a plan that improves the salmon survival in all aspects and areas of an endangered salmon's life cycle, our success will be uncertain," Lovelin said.

The Lower Columbia Treaty tribes agree that the public's attention must be focused on the salmon' plight, but say the federal agencies must first look in their own backyards for recovery options.

"The federal government is the largest owner and operator of dams, land and hatcheries in the basin," said Donald Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, "yet they offer tribal harvest, once again, as a conservation option while their dams, land management and treatment of fishing hatcheries continue to kill 90 percent of the salmon. We won't stand for it."

Harvests have already been limited to the point that are a "miniscule percentage of all human-induced mortality," Sampson said. Attempts to limit the tribes' last commercial fishery would likely draw a legal challenge, according to a CRITFC press release.

CRITFC has long advocated dam breaching to restore spawning and rearing habitat as a necessary component of a recovery plan.

"When the dust settles on the Four H debate a broader audience will understand that all roads to recovery lead to major changes in the dams, using hatcheries to help rebuild salmon, and protecting and restoring habitat," Sampson said. "Let's hope we get there in time."

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, noted that two of the measures in the paper's "Maximum Protection" sample alternative were already being implemented -- decreases in hatchery production for harvest and reduction of harvest levels -- and fishers were paying the price.

"We need to focus on the federal government's role in killing fish," Hamilton said. That means increased coordination of federal habitat improvement efforts and getting "on with the discussion of breaching."

Tuesday's presentation "looks more like it's designed to confuse than it is to help," Hamilton said. "We want NMFS to frame the science and frame it clearly with biological and economic price tags."

CRITFC spokesman Charles Hudson likewise said he received a mixed message but was relieved that the option of dam breaching had not been culled out of the federal caucus process.

"We're pleased that all of the H's are apparently on the table, Hopefully that will lead to honest dialogue on long-term solutions to the crisis," Hudson said.

"Yet they provided no leadership," Hudson said of the 4-H working paper. It only offered an array of options, Hudson said, that the region's residents have been aware of for years.

"Now is the time for answers," not a recitation of potential remedies, Hudson said.

Rob Walton of the Public Power Council sees the development of a Four-H recovery plan as a process to finally get answers to the arguments among fish and wildlife managers.

"I want to try to help identify an integrated alternative that has a reasonable amount of aggressiveness in improving freshwater habitat" and that includes harvest strategies that don't undermine the basic goals -- preserving species and fishing rights. That later issue involves the particular dilemma of learning how to allow the harvest of strong fish populations while protecting weak stocks that swim amongst them," he said.

The options proffered Tuesday "lack clarity on the fisheries managers' problems," Walton said.

National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator Will Stelle "spoke eloquently about the need of the region to get behind the plan" but failed to outline what states, tribes, industry and the public would get as a return on investment in habitat improvements and harvest sacrifices, Walton said.

Craig Smith, vice president of environmental affairs for the Northwest Food Processors, said he was a little confused by the federal caucus' apparent lack of direction, but he was encouraged by the effort to push recovery planning off dead center.

"We ought to give them the benefit of the doubt," Smith said of the federal caucus' call to action. "We don't want to see this decided in Congress."

Smith agreed with Stelle's assessment that improvements to river and estuary habitats have the greatest potential to positively influence salmon survival.

Dam breaching is not the answer, said Smith, whose industry is fueled by irrigated crops that could be left dry by dam breaching, or by flow augmentation schemes that drain reservoirs.

Others interpreted the paper, and scientific analysis that back it, as still ranking breaching as the action with the most biological potential.

"Coupled with other analysis by state, tribal and other federal biologists, this working paper shows that partial removal of the four Lower Snake dams is the only option that helps all Snake River salmon and steelhead by reducing or ending more sources of mortality than any other measure," said Tim Stearns of Save Our Wild Salmon.

"While improvements in all H's are necessary, the cornerstone of the recovery plan should be restoring healthy river conditions by removing these dams. The extinction risks NMFS identifies demand immediate and bold actions."

"The working paper sets the goal way too low by focusing largely on simply avoiding extinction. The Administration must restore healthy, harvestable runs as required by laws, treaties, and the people of the Northwest. With this goal in mind it is clear that we can't avoid bypassing these four dams.

"When you cut through the laundry list of speculation, failed techno-fixes, and impractical proposals, it is clear that only a plan based on restoring healthy in-river habitat through dam removal will address the needs of all listed fish and spread the sacrifices around fairly, " added Stearns.

Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishing families, said "The agencies are simply trying once again to dodge their legal responsibility to restore healthy runs. The non-dam options they presented are so draconian, and will cost so many more jobs than dam decommissioning, it just begs the question how long the region can continue to cling to a handful of heavily subsidized, obsolete and non-cost-effective dams."

The Sierra Club's Jim Baker accused the federal agencies' of trying to manipulate science to steer decision makers from the politically unpalatable, but necessary, recovery choice -- dam breaching.

"NMFS attempts to make a case for delay based largely on science which has flunked peer review by the ISAB and state and tribal biologists due very optimistic assumptions about fish barging and dam-caused salmon mortality," said Jim Baker of the Sierra Club. "NMFS can't continue to shut out the states and tribes because it doesn't like their criticisms. Contrary to what some officials and industries will say, this paper, in combination with the peer reviews, actually bolsters the case for partial dam removal."

The draft paper released Tuesday, "Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish, Building a Conceptual Recovery Plan With The Four H's," is the precursor of a more detailed "4H Paper," due out in mid-December.

Stelle said the paper was intended to "outline the fundamental choices" and "stimulate an honest and constructive debate." It outlined a number of potential measures under each "H" and then provided several examples of possible integrated plans with proposed strategies hatchery production, harvest, federal hydropower operations and habitat improvements.

Northwest Power Planning Council Chairman Todd Maddock of Idaho said of the Four-H paper, "The Council always has recognized that efforts to recover salmon and other species must involve a variety of factors, not just a focus on the federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. Therefore, we are delighted that the federal agencies are beginning to think about recovery in terms of the 4Hs -- habitat, harvest, hatcheries and hydroelectricity. The 4H Working Paper is a significant milestone because it begins to move the federal agencies away from a single-species approach to fish and wildlife recovery planning."

"Next month," Maddock said, "we (the Council) will begin amending our Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. Our program addresses the impacts of hydropower dams on all fish and wildlife in the basin, including threatened and endangered species . . . The regional debate about recovery options envisioned in the Working Paper is just the sort of debate we intend to have as we amend our program, and it will assist us in selecting options to include in the program."

Link information:
4-H Paper

by Barry Espenson
Reaction Varied on Feds' 4-H Message
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 19, 1999

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