by Robert Stokes
Portland federal judge James Redden sent a shock wave through the Northwest when he rejected the Columbia River salmon recovery plan of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). He wants commitments from "Action Agencies" to carry out the salmon-saving habitat improvements listed in the plan. In so ruling, Redden may have put the issue of dam breaching in Washington state back on the table.

Jan Hasselman, counsel to the National Wildlife Federation, chief plaintiff in the case, questions whether the government can deliver those commitments. He notes one, the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, was terminated by the Bush Administration. Hasselman also notes the budget problems of Northwest states and that the BPA has substantially cut fish and wildlife funding.

If agencies don't, or can't, deliver on their commitments, NMFS may be unable to prove the hydro system can operate without jeopardizing salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act.

That could re-ignite discussion of dam removal. Quoting Chapter 9 of the recovery plan, "failure to implement enough estuary or tributary habitat improvements [on the Snake River] could necessitate that the Action Agencies seek authorizations to breach Snake River dams."

Hasselman is optimistic about such a request. "Regional opposition to dam removal derives from a belief that both salmon and dams can be preserved. Forced to choose one or the other, regional political leaders will chose salmon, and Congress will follow the region's lead." In support of that view, he cites the more than 80 co-sponsors of the Salmon Planning Act, introduced by Representative Jim McDermott (D-Seattle). That bill would provide dam removal authority.

I oppose removing the four Snake River dams in question. Claims of dam removal advocates notwithstanding, foregone benefits and removal costs would total several billion dollars, with insignificant offsetting fisheries and recreational benefits: bad medicine for an ailing Northwest economy.

The whole Columbia and Snake River salmon resource has never been in jeopardy. That includes wild as well as hatchery fish. The only salmon runs affected by dam removal are four localized populations of "wild" fish returning to the Snake River. One (sockeye) has been extinct in the wild for several years. All four (sockeye, fall chinook, spring/summer chinook and steelhead) are represented by healthy, wild populations elsewhere in the Columbia.

All aspects of Columbia River salmon conservation have improved in the past decade. In particular, the effectiveness of barging juvenile salmon around the dams has been proven. Also, new style "conservation" hatcheries are supplementing returns of "wild" (meaning in-stream spawning) salmon. These and other accomplishments are contributing to good salmon returns, beginning with juveniles going to sea during 1997. Admittedly, improved ocean conditions are also contributing.

In the event an ESA-protected Snake River salmon population declines, or fails to recover as expected, it could be supplemented with biologically comparable stock. In an extreme case, it could be entirely restored. Supplementation and restoration are common practices in the Northwest, with Clearwater River and Lake Coeur d'Alene chinook salmon as examples. Wild salmon supplementation programs are already underway in the Snake River basin.

I realize there are other views about the current program. But I am at a loss to understand how dam removal advocates think salmon conservation can be advanced by forcing dam breaching.

President Bush has repeatedly criticized removing the Snake River dams, once during a nationally televised Presidential debate. Those are strong signals that any dam removal request in the near future would fail.

Whenever their turn comes, Democrats may not treat dam removal any better. Democratic icons Henry Jackson, Warren Magnuson and Tom Foley built the Snake River dams, and Franklin Roosevelt founded the Columbia Basin Project. Dam removal got little support from the Clinton administration or, later, from Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.

The Northwest (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana) Congressional delegation currently includes 14 Democrats. Only Seattle Representative Jim McDermott has acted or spoken favorably about dam removal. McDermott only wants to give federal agencies that legal capability, and he does not currently support the idea. Neither do the Democratic governors of Washington and Oregon, who joined Idaho and Montana's Republican governors in condemning dam removal discussion as "polarizing and divisive."

Dam removal could even become a trap. Congressional rejection would require Bush political appointee Robert Lohn (NMFS Northwest Region Administrator) and his (also Bush-appointed) superiors to consider other steps. One option would be asking the Endangered Species Committee (called "the God Squad") to withdraw ESA protection from Columbia River salmon.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton chairs the God Squad. Its members are other Bush Cabinet officers and (also Bush-appointed) regional representatives. Early in her career, Norton said she considered ESA unconstitutional. With the stroke of a pen, Norton and a Republican-dominated God Squad could put Columbia River salmon conservation (and the Snake River dams) beyond the reach of ESA and environmental lawsuits.

Not, of course, without a furious national battle between ESA's friends and foes. Salmon and Northwest economic interests would be quickly overshadowed by the controversy. Participants in the current litigation should consider the consequences before picking such a fight.

Publication date: 06/19/03

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