Only the Beginning

Clinton punts on the salmon issue

The Clinton administration handed the issue of the Columbia River's salmon recovery and the Snake River dams to its successor last Thursday by releasing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Final Biological Opinion. That plan sets standards and schedules for restoring 12 Columbia River salmon runs. The NMFS previously listed those runs as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including all four Snake River salmon runs, fall Chinook, spring/summer Chinook, steelhead and sockeye.

This could begin a major clash of politics and philosophy, since the Columbia and Snake river salmon were listed as threatened or endangered, and the current recovery plan was developed under the influence of Clinton administration officials. Those Clinton administrators include Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (former President of the League of Conservation voters) and Council on Environmental Quality Chair George Frampton (former President of the Wilderness Society), who played a prominent role in the final drafting of the plan.

The plan will be implemented by their yet-to-be-named Republican counterparts at Interior, the Council on Environmental Quality and National Marine Fisheries Service. President-elect George W. Bush, as well as regional Republicans, campaigned prominently against Snake River dam breaching. In Bush's case, this included a nationally televised statement against breaching during the first presidential debate. To further complicate matters, the ESA has not been formally authorized since 1992, because Congressional Republicans wanted weakening revisions that President Clinton would not accept.

If federal and non-federal parties comply with the plan's standards, the future salmon recovery program may be limited to refinement of current measures. These are the so-called 4Hs: Habitat, Hatcheries, Harvest and Hydropower.

Habitat refers to measures like removing trash from streams, keeping salmon from wandering into irrigation channels and controlling streamside grazing.

Hatcheries refers to reducing production of hatchery fish that compete with wild stocks and, instead, using hatcheries to supplement endangered runs.

Harvest means reducing sport, tribal and commercial fishing in the ocean and river where practical. Significant further harvest reduction is not included in the plan because of past reductions and obligations to tribes that have government treaties.

Hydropower refers to refinement and installation of turbine bypass systems, spilling water to hasten juvenile fish passage through reservoirs and similar measures.

After several years of effort on the four fronts, this year's salmon returns have been encouraging, including increased returns of the listed Snake River stocks. According to Frampton's statement accompanying the plan, the current effort could cost as much as $190 million next year, and the cost may eventually double.

In any one of the years 2003, 2005 and 2008, if the current plan fails to meet plan standards, NMFS may recommend to Congress that the Snake River dams be breached. If this happens as early as 2003, that's significantly earlier than the draft plan suggested. Breaching would eliminate 10 percent of BPA generating capacity and terminate seagoing barge traffic to Lewiston, Idaho. Planning for breaching will begin immediately. Witt Anderson from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Portland Divisional Office says some previously scheduled investments in the Snake River dams have already been deferred pending a breaching decision.

If Congress refuses to fund breaching, NMFS will then ask a specially appointed federal body (commonly known as the God Squad) to exempt the listed populations from ESA. This would basically mean continuing the current effort and allowing the listed salmon runs to carry on to whatever end.

Breaching proponents cheered the report because they see it as preserving the option of breaching. Carl Pope, National Sierra Club President, said "President-elect Bush will have to fully fund and aggressively implement all the measures in the biological opinion. In addition, if those measures fail, we need to be prepared to remove the dams as soon as possible."

A statement by six environmental groups, including leading breaching advocate American Rivers, reads "The final plan improves on [the July] draft by moving up the decision date for Congressional action regarding dam removal to as early as 2003, with triggering of actual dam removal potentially in five years."

On the other side, representatives of Bonneville Power ratepayers and other users of services provided by Columbia and Snake river dams emphasized the non-breaching alternatives.

"It is reassuring to see NMFS listen to their top scientists who say breaching dams will not work," says Scott Corwin of the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative (PNGC). "Throwing away 3,000 megawatts of peaking capacity, enough power to run the city of Seattle, will not bring the fish back."

Speaking for many Eastern Washington farmers, Gretchen Borck of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers said, "We are concerned about whether the goals are clearly defined and also whether the performance targets will be achievable."

Speaking for the barging industry, Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, noted that more effort is needed in critical habitat areas like the Columbia estuary.

So the battle is now joined, but what remains to be seen is the direction and scope it will take. Viewed within the plan's scope, the issue will be whether the current 4Hs recovery measures improve salmon returns sufficiently to prevent listed Snake River stocks from falling below NMFS survival targets. If not, Congress or possibly the courts may have to resolve the fate of the Snake River dams.

Broader issues may also arise, particularly if ESA reform becomes a Republican legislative issue during the same period. These broader issues may include reconsidering agency interpretation of ESA's "evolutionarily significant population" language. Meaning, should Snake River salmon be evaluated separately from more abundant stocks of comparable species throughout the Columbia? Also subject to possible review may be the current "God Squad" procedure for relaxing ESA's "save at any cost" standard.

For better or worse, the Inland Northwest just became the site of one of the next decade's major environmental struggles. Stay tuned.

Robert Stokes is a retired fisheries economist from the University of Washington, who writes on natural resources and environmental topics.The NMFS plan can be viewed at