the film
Commentaries and editorials

Don't Wait for Transformation

by Editorial Board
The Daily Astorian, September 21, 2009

Spend time on this season's salmon returns, not dam removal

Anyone who hoped for transformational change in Pacific Northwest salmon-recovery policies from the Obama administration must not have been paying attention to who the president put in charge. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, now overseeing NOAA Fisheries, was anything but radical when it came to salmon (and everything else) when he was Washington governor.

The salmon conservation strategy submitted Tuesday to U.S. District Court Judge James Redden is an improvement on those developed by Bush officials. Those earlier efforts appeared transparently designed to just barely pass legal muster. Their substantive thinness seemed to many, including the judge, to leave too much to chance, with endangered runs just a handful of bad years away from outright extinction.

As Washington governor, Locke was at his best as steward of the economy - not anti-environment, but definitely not a farseeing advocate for conservation in the mold of his contemporary, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. While Kitzhaber was at least conceptually open to restoring natural water flows in the Snake River system and forming a stronger regional management entity for the Columbia-Snake watershed, Locke was far more cautious when it came to potential impacts on business.

The revamped recovery plan now on the table reflects this deference to industry and hydropower. Though clearly influenced by new science-minded NOAA chief and former Oregon State University professor Jane Lubchenco, the Obama strategy provides salmon with a slightly better chance of surviving, not a greatly improved chance of prospering.

Noteworthy are provisions that spend more money on research and monitoring. In contrast, Bush officials appeared intent on learning as little as they could get away with, perhaps in hopes that bothersome salmon would cease to exist before anybody noticed. It is plausible to think that Lubchenco will act promptly if monitoring reveals dangerous emerging trends in salmon populations.

But before people at the mouth of the Columbia get their dander up about any lack of substantive immediate action, it bears remembering that one of the steps that could occur first is a sharp curtailment or end to various fishing seasons, particularly commercial gillnetting. Fishing advocates tend to forget that additional harvest restrictions are likely to be insisted upon long before any dams are removed. In any event, dam removal and riparian restoration within former reservoirs would take many years to accomplish, while nontribal fishing can be abolished with the stroke of a pen.

It isn't wrong to passionately advocate for serious changes in watershed management, as groups like Save Our Wild Salmon and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen continue to do. It is still possible to imagine a river system in which interlocking types of habitat are nurtured for the good of all creatures, including salmon and humans. The avid criticism being levied by environmentalists at the Obama restoration plan is helpful, in the sense that it may keep Locke and Lubchenco from being pulled too far right of center by people like U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who do not want even the hint of a mention that dams could ever be breached.

The overarching issue of our age - the elephant in the corner, or more aptly in these parts, the bull sea lion in the swimming pool - is global warming. A new prediction out last week suggests the Pacific Northwest will become steadily drier, with smaller snow packs and less rain. Dams store water and produce no greenhouse gas. How likely is it, really, that President Obama and Congress will authorize dam removal in such times?

This has been a relatively good year for most salmon runs. Learning why this is may achieve more in the long run than wishing for big federal fixes that are unlikely to materialize.

Editorial Board
Don't Wait for Transformation
The Daily Astorian, September 21, 2009

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation