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Will Salmon Make Rebound?

by Editorial Board
Daily Astorian, May 17, 2010

Will Stelle returns as Northwest Regional NMFS boss

Will Stelle former Northwest Regional Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service and has spent 20 years on ESA-related issues for the federal legislative and executive branches. Considering how much has happened in the intervening years, the 1990s can feel as distant as the 1890s. So it will be especially interesting to see whether Clinton administration official Will Stelle achieves anything very meaningful while again leading the Northwest Regional Office of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service under President Obama. Stelle was given his old job back last week.

Federal officials who manage natural resources in our region talk a good show but habitually act in ways calculated to minimize expense for the Northwest's powerful industrial establishment. No issue is more freighted with economic side effects than salmon recovery. Stelle's record does not suggest that he will bring any bold transformations to the long slog off the Endangered Species List for Columbia River native runs.

Serving in the same NOAA post from 1994 to 2000, Stelle avoided big decisions regarding Snake River dams. The 2000 biological opinion put together during Stelle's time was a largely political document that deferred to Washington's then-governor Gary Locke and others who opposed fundamental changes in dam operations. This "bi-op" wasn't completely lacking in merit; it just wasn't very ambitious. Federal Judge James Redden threw it out after Clinton and Stelle left office.

But as noted by Rocky Barker last month in the Idaho Statesman, Stelle "left satisfied that he had gotten for salmon all he could politically, since the Clinton administration decided against breaching dams. What he got was all of the water interests in the region to upgrade salmon access to tributaries and to increase amount of water available in rivers like the Lemhi in Idaho and the Methow in Washington. No longer would killing endangered salmon in an irrigation ditch be business as usual."

Stelle was - and presumably still is - an advocate for incremental steps that rely on habitat conservation agreements (HCA). These contracts between industry and government set conservation targets in forests and rivers. In theory, these HCAs give industries flexibility in return for willing cooperation in meeting solid conservation and recovery targets. In the Clinton years, they were portrayed as "win-win" propositions, fine in most settings.

The reality of HCAs has been mixed. It can be argued that they have given companies like Weyerhaeuser the certainty they need to make land-management decisions without constant litigation. A little of the money that once fueled court battles now instead flows into achieving better forests and watersheds.

But HCAs suffer many weaknesses. They assume good-faith bargaining and follow-through that are in short supply. They require ongoing monitoring and other steps that basically amount to self-policing by industry. They were drafted in the absence of any real grasp of the impacts of climate change on streams and forests.

Is there any question that Stelle will be better for the Columbia and its salmon than Bush officials were? Absolutely, no doubt he will be. Will he be happy with modest, incremental gains for Northwest species? Sadly, probably so.

Editorial Board
Will Salmon Make Rebound?
Daily Astorian, May 17, 2010

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