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Idaho Sen. Sees Broad Collaboration as Way to
End Litigation Cycle over Basin Salmon Recovery

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 5, 2009

The dorsal fin of a salmon breaks the surface of the Columbia River. No, Idaho's senior U.S. senator, Mike Crapo, is not a born-again dam breaching advocate.

"I don't support breaching the dams and I haven't supported it since I've been in Congress, I've never supported it," said the Republican, who served six years in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected in 1998 to represent Idaho in the Senate. He was re-elected in 2004.

But he said tackling that issue, and others, head-on is likely the only way to pull Columbia River basin salmon recovery efforts out of the courthouse and put them on a successful mission.

"All options must be openly and fairly discussed," says Crapo, who is reissuing his call for a doors-open collaboration that he thinks would lead to a consensus recovery strategy.

"Does that mean dam breaching must be on the table?" he asked members of the Northwest Energy Coalition during the organization's May 29 meeting in Boise. "Yes. But that also means not dam breaching must be on the table."

The senator in 2003 tried to kick start a collaboration but the effort failed as "the interest in litigation was prevalent," Crapo told the Columbia Basin Bulletin this week.

Litigation has been the norm almost since the first of the basin's salmonid species - Idaho's Snake River sockeye - was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.

That trend continues today. U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden is considering whether to give the NOAA Fisheries Service's May 2008 hydro system biological opinion his legal endorsement. He has told NOAA that the BiOp should perhaps should incorporate an evaluation of dam breaching as a contingency should all else fail.

The Obama Administration has asked the judge to withhold any legal decision until the end of the month so that it can review the document, which outlines research and actions both within the Columbia-Snake hydro system and off-site (such as habitat restoration and hatchery reform) intended to improve fish survivals. There are now 13 basin salmon and steelhead stocks that are ESA listed.

Redden declared illegal the 2000 "Federal Columbia River Power System" BiOp and its replacement, which was issued in 2004. The 2008 BiOp, which replaces the 2004 version, was built by involved federal agencies in collaboration with Columbia basin states and tribes. Non-sovereign entities that are parties to the lawsuit, such as water user and navigation groups, power interests and conservation and fishing organizations, were on the sidelines of that collaboration.

It was a coalition of fishing and conservation groups that challenged the 2008 BiOp, as well as the 2000 and 2004 versions. The groups insist that breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington is necessary to foment recovery of listed Snake River stocks. Power and navigation interests, in particular, oppose breaching and say it would do little to help beleaguered stocks.

Dam breaching would ultimately require authorization from Congress.

"Our history has been that judicial decision points have not ended the litigation," said Crapo. After Redden speaks. there will undoubtedly be legal challenges.

"Conflict modes of decision making regarding issues like this are very rarely successful at all, and when they do result in finality they are not often win-win solutions like collaboration can achieve," he said while noting his past attempt.

"Now it is six years later and we are still in court." Without a successful collaboration, and final solution, the cycle is likely to repeat itself.

"Another six years from now we will still be in litigation, and we will be no further down the road and those that will have suffered the most will be the fish," Crapo said.

The Idaho senator has been touching base with lawmakers, government officials, special interest groups and others, and preaching the need for a true collaboration. He's also receiving considerable feedback prompted by media coverage of his speech to the NW Energy Coalition.

"Overall, there is strong support for the notion that, if we are not able resolve this in the near future through the decisions in Judge Redden's court, that we ought to try look at some sort of a collaborative effort," Crapo said.

The collaboration is still in the conceptual stage.

"We must work first to get a commitment of the parties in the region to collaborate," he said. "Obviously this would be very complex -- a number of different government entities both at the state and federal level and at the tribal level. And you have a number of different private interests ranging across the board from conservation and environmental to transportation and agriculture and recreation, the list goes on and on. We would need first of all a commitment from people to participate.

"Then, I think it would be very complex but doable for us to put together a table for people to collaborate." The process leading to the 2008 BiOp built a strong foundation, he said.

"There is significant support for that Biop, three of the states, most of the tribes have supported it," Crapo said.

"I think that that effort was a very productive effort and actually was able to build a very solid level of support, not 100 percent consensus but a solid level of support," he said. "And I would think that, if it becomes necessary to move forward in a broader collaboration, we should bring in the private parties. But I don't think that means at all that we shouldn't utilize the work product of that effort and the tremendous advances they have made in that process."

"When you're involved in a collaborative effort you have to be willing to let competing ideas come to the table. That's why I said all options should be on the table ," Crapo said. "All options must be openly and fairly discussed."

He believes a win-win solution like the one forged through the Owyhee Initiative is possible.

The Owyhee Initiative involved an often fractious collaboration that stretched over eight years but resulted in a consensus plan to resolve decades-old land management issues in Owyhee County, Idaho.

President Obama on March 30 signed legislation stemming from the Owyhee agreement. It designates 517,000 acres of public land as the Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness, in six units, releases 199,000 acres of wilderness study areas to non-wilderness multiple use management and designate 316 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers. And it provides economic stability by preserving livestock grazing as an economically-viable use.

"Salmon and steelhead will be tougher," Crapo said of species recovery issues.

"If people will commit to the principles of true collaboration they will be able to do better not only for their own interests but for the interests of those they have fought for so long."

A video of the senator's speech to the NW Energy Coalition can be found at

Idaho Sen. Sees Broad Collaboration as Way to End Litigation Cycle over Basin Salmon Recovery
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 5, 2009

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