Wyden Poised to Become Player
by Rocky Barker
Ron Wyden sat next to Sen. Mark Hatfield at what would become a pivotal hearing on the future of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
It was 1990 and the two men were sitting in a federal building in Portland that is long gone. Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, was a Congressman then.
Sitting in front of he and Hatfield were the major economic and political powers of the entire Columbia Basin, an area the size of France. There were water attorneys representing Idaho, Oregon and Washington farmers, tribal leaders, aluminum company representatives, the Bonneville Power Administration, fishermen, environmentalists, barge company executives, utility officials and biologists from the states and federal government. They were there to talk about how they might avoid listing salmon as an endangered species, an act, most saw as a threat to the economy of the region that then had about 9 million people.
Hatfield pressed the players to sit down together for a series of collaborative talks that became known as the Salmon Summit. A year later it became clear they could not avoid listing but the summit laid the groundwork for the salmon restoration efforts that have come in the last 22 years.
Wyden, now a Senator, has not been a major player in the salmon fight since. That may be changing.
Wyden will become the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year when New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman retires. If the Democrats hold on to the Senate then he will be the chairman.
Energy and Natural Resources oversees the Bonneville Power Administration and many of the resource agencies involved in salmon management. BPA has been the leader of the federal family during the last decade in salmon matters.
Its administrator Steve Wright brought together the states of Washington, Montana and Idaho and most of the Columbia tribes into what it calls the Columbia Accord to support its biological opinion for the Columbia and Snake dams, essentially is plan for salmon management. While a great accomplishment, he could not get fishermen, the Nez Perce Tribe, environmental groups and most notably, the state of Oregon on board.
They continued to sue, calling the plan inadequate and won. In September, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber called for a new, alternative approach to the BPA Accords, bringing to the table the groups that were left out and the people in the communities that will be affected.
Under court order the federal government is going to have to come up with a new plan that will meet the requirement of the Endangered Species Act by 2014. Kitzhaber's call is not a surprise or a new position for the only elected official in the Pacific Northwest to go on record calling for breaching the four lower Snake dams to save salmon.
But Wyden, who has not said much about the issue for 22 years, quickly joined Kitzhaber.
"Time and time again we've seen that good things happen when folks agree to meet face-to-face and tackle the tough issues facing Oregon," Wyden said in a statement. "I'm glad to see that Governor Kitzhaber has taken the initiative and announced his support for a roundtable that will bring together tribes, fishermen, farmers, power customers, conservationists and officials from state and local governments to discuss Northwest salmon issues."
The Obama administration has largely ignored Oregon during the first four years as it has called for more actions to improve salmon migration conditions on the Snake and Columbia. It has not chosen to begin an overhaul of its current plan to meet the court deadline of 2014 yet.
But it won't be able to ignore Wyden, who is on the verge of becoming one of the most power people in Washington on energy issues. Wright retires at the end of the year and Wyden may play a role in the choice of his successor.
Of course Obama may not be in the White House next year. Mitt Romney may be deciding who will lead salmon policy in the region and he may lean heavily on the vey uncollaborative Washington Republican Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Resources Committee.
Or maybe leaders like Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, who have expressed support for collaborative talks on salmon before, will step to the forefront.
Whatever happens, Wyden is going to be a player and he has now thrown his support to the approach Kitzhaber champions.
"This is the kind of collaborative process that the region needs to find a solution to such a thorny issue," Wyden said.
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