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What's a Salmon Stream without Salmon?

by Mark Trahant, Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - December 12, 2004

What is a salmon stream? A simple question.

One answer, I suppose, is that if salmon swim or spawn in that stream, it's a salmon stream.

But the question is not easily answered because it's a test about our values. What do we as a society care more about, salmon or property rights? Will we favor a wild river or reshape the landscape when it suits us?

The federal government is proposing a set of values that changes the balance, tilting more toward electricity and enterprise over salmon and wild rivers.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has determined that the eight large dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers are permanent. A biological opinion said: "It is clear that each of these dams already exists, and their existence is beyond the present discretion" of removal.

In other words: The value of cheap power is paramount, but we can pretend to have both power and fish with fewer consequences.

It's one thing to rule out dam removal if the government increases its salmon-recovery efforts in other areas. But instead, in a second action, the government proposed reducing the areas listed for specific habitat protection.

The government says it wants to focus on rivers where fish now thrive -- rather than on tributaries in which salmon have less chance of survival. That means a redefinition of up to 90 percent of the Northwest now considered critical habitat because the economic benefits are more important than the prospect of fish.

A smaller habitat-protection zone should make it easier for home builders, timber companies and farmers to triumph over fish. Those industries are hailing the decision as practical, a common-sense approach to development.

To be fair: The government (and a lot of fish advocates) says these new proposals are not much of a change. A letter by government officials tells Northwest residents that they remain committed to salmon recovery. They promise to use better technology, such as improved fish ladders, to make it all work.

"Every citizen in the Pacific Northwest has a stake in this work," says the letter by four federal administrators, Robert Lohn of NOAA Fisheries, William Grisoli of the Army Corps of Engineers, William McDonald of the Bureau of Reclamation and Stephen Wright of the Bonneville Power Administration.

"Salmon are a cultural icon and provide important economic benefits to our region. The federal hydropower system provides approximately 40 percent of the region's electric power as well as flood control, irrigation, navigation and recreation. ... If we are to be successful, we must work together to support our twin goals of a healthy environment and a strong economy."

The Biological Opinion and Updated Proposed Action documents are awfully complicated. I am not sure anyone knows with precision what the new rules mean or how these rules will affect fish recovery.

The federal government spends a lot of money -- about $600 million a year -- and says it only wants to be more effective in the actual recovery of fish. The money represents a slight increase. NOAA says it's only "setting priorities" for fish recovery.

I hope the government is right. But I worry about this rebalancing.

When I read those documents, I get the sense that the velocity of salmon recovery has been officially slowed.

The details can be debated -- and should be -- but there seems to be little in resolution about the basic test of values. We all want salmon, but at what cost? What do we, as a region, give up?

I hope we don't lose momentum, because there has been progress in salmon recovery over the past couple of decades.

We've made culverts more fish-friendly, there are new weirs around dams and we see fish spawning even in urban streams.

What is a salmon stream? A new answer might be a stream where salmon once swam or spawned. Some tributaries could end up as "salmon" in name only.

Consider the proposed habitat-exclusion list in the Columbia River system, streams such as the Little White Salmon River or Salmon Creek. In giving up these streams, is this a determination that salmon recovery is too hard?

It won't be the first time the region has given up on salmon. Today you can pick up a travel brochure for Jackpot, Nev., near the Idaho state line. Read about how fun it will be to visit the casino and later take time off for great fishing.

"With the Salmon Falls Creek flowing just out of town, fishing is just from your doorstep," says a brochure. "Rainbow, brown and brook trout are found in most streams just a few miles in any direction, or you can drive 20 miles to the north and catch a record-size walleye from the Salmon Falls Reservoir in Idaho."

How nice. Salmon streams full of trout and walleye (record size, too). The one thing missing is salmon.

We should start printing another generation of brochures. We can use them to tell our children about a salmon creek and what was and could have been.

Mark Trahant is editor of the editorial page.
What's a Salmon Stream without Salmon?
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 12, 2004

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