This year's large return of Pacific salmon to the waters of Idaho has some people crowing that the endangered fish are on the rebound. It certainly is a positive turn of events given the dismal runs of the last decade. But if you really want to know how salmon are faring in the Pacific Northwest, you've got to go to a place like Marsh Creek.
This 15-foot wide tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River 10 miles west of Stanley, Idaho, lies 870 miles from the ocean, in the heart of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It's clean and clear and, like the Middle Fork itself, runs mostly through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
No hatchery fish have ever sullied the genetic stock of its spring chinook run. The habitat is, if anything, better than it was when nearly 2,000 wild fish returned to spawn in the 1960s. Cattle were removed from its meadows five years ago.
I have returned to Marsh Creek every August since 1990 to measure the health of Pacific salmon. It's been a heart-breaking pilgrimage. For two out of the last five years, including 1999, no salmon returned. By the National Marine Fisheries Service's own standards, these fish are on the edge of extinction.
This year, things look better. Biologists counted 27 redds -- or nests -- in the river and 29 live salmon. But Mother Nature, not man, accounts for this reprieve.
High flows in 1997, 1998 and 1999 helped speed the juvenile salmon to the Pacific on their downstream migration through eight dams and reservoirs on the Snake and Columbia rivers. When they arrived in the ocean, an upswelling of nutrients from the depths of the ocean, caused by changing climatic conditions, enriched their home and dramatically improved their survival.
Despite this natural boost, the salmon have not returned in numbers high enough to lead them toward recovery. Biologists from all sides of the salmon debate agree that 2 to 6 percent of the juveniles that leave Marsh Creek must return to spawn if they are ever to recover to a sustainable level. This year, only slightly more than 1 percent returned -- enough to replace the adults that spawned them.
"With the best conditions Mother Nature can give us, we make the bare minimum we need to prevent extinction," Russell Kiefer, an Idaho fisheries biologist, told me.
Since more than 30,000 hatchery chinook returned to Idaho this year, many have declared the salmon recovery effort a success. But only by overloading both the rivers and the ocean habitat with millions of juvenile salmon was this possible. These numbers cannot be sustained naturally or even in the hatcheries except when nature's star's all line up in the salmon's favor.
Federal officials partially recognized this when they released their long-awaited comprehensive plan for saving 12 stocks of endangered salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers in July. But as expected, they stopped short of recommending to Congress what the majority of scientists say may be necessary for preventing Snake River salmon from going extinct -- breaching four federal dams in Washington.
The reason was obvious: There still is not a political majority in the region for removal of the dams that provide 5 percent of the region's electricity, enough to power Seattle. Republican Presidential Nominee George W. Bush, who flatly opposes breaching the Army Corps of Engineers-operated dams, has succeeded in making it a major political issue in the key states of Oregon and Washington.
The Gore campaign, wedged in the middle of the issue, has chosen the same strategy Bill Clinton used to appease both environmentalists and labor in the region in 1992 -- he's called for a summit after the election. Clinton successfully negotiated a compromise on the spotted owl-ancient forest issue with his Northwest Forest Plan in 1993.
Now Gore hopes to do the same after the election, if he wins. If he doesn't, then the conflicting positions of the federal agencies who developed the Clinton salmon plan leave opponents an apparently strong court challenge under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and several Indian treaties.
The plan relies on improving habitat, which won't help Marsh Creek's fish. It also proposes reforming hatchery practices. That won't help Marsh Creek either.
The plan calls for voluntary increases in water flows from federal reservoirs to improve migration. But there isn't enough water in the whole Snake River to return the flows to levels that can wash the fish through the dams and their reservoirs at historic rates.
Technological tinkering won't be enough. Just getting 300 sockeye salmon back to Redfish Lake this year has cost more than $20 million, and those fish won't be able to sustain themselves until the migration corridor improves.
The same goes for Marsh Creek salmon. If we don't take bold steps, then Idaho will eventually lose its amazing connection to the Pacific Ocean. And my pilgrimages to Marsh Creek will be more heartbreaking than ever.
Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is the environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman in Boise.