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Salmon Study Author Scales Back Findings

by Michael Jamison
The Missoulian, January 20, 2006

Early last year, economist Don Reading released a study estimating Idaho stood to hook into a whopping $544 million each year if wild salmon runs were fully restored.

But a recent independent review of his work has adjusted that figure downward a bit - to a paltry $7 million a year, in fact, forcing Reading back to the economic drawing board.

"I'm redoing parts of the study," Reading said. "Some of the things in the review I tend to agree with, and some I don't, but I am working on revising the numbers."

How Reading's big fish story shrank with the telling has much to do with what gets counted, how it gets counted, and what you choose to call the stuff you're counting.

A consulting economist for Ben Johnson Associates, Reading has been measuring fish dollars for years, and his 2005 study was not his first to project large gains from sport angling.

In it, he counted anglers, river trips and costs, and finally estimated that a fully restored salmon and steelhead sport fishery would boost Idaho's economy by hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Most of the $544 million benefit projected by this study would come to small, rural communities in Idaho," he reported, "the very towns that need it most."

Others, especially those in the environmental community, took his numbers and ran, extrapolating to suggest a $5.5 billion boost once Washington and Oregon were included.

The study was endorsed and hailed by local chambers of commerce and other Idaho business groups.

Trouble was, even Reading admits the "$544 million benefit" he spoke of is not, exactly, a "benefit."

Instead, it's an "impact."

And that's an important distinction, likely worth many tens of millions of dollars.

When Reading worked up his numbers, he simply counted how much money would leave anglers' wallets while they were fishing in Idaho. But when analyzed by an independent review panel - convened by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council - it became clear that economic "benefits" could only be determined by first subtracting the amount Idaho would have to spend reeling in those anglers.

An example: If a fisherman comes to Idaho and buys a fancy new rod, that's a $500 economic "impact." But that $500 rod cost the retailer $300, so the economic "benefit" is only $200.

"I wish I hadn't used the word 'benefit,' " Reading said in retrospect. "I should have used the word 'impact.' "

Of course, an impact doesn't put money in people's pockets the way a benefit does, and the panel recommended Reading quantify changes to personal income and jobs rather than simply money changing hands.

Reading also admits his study looked at the total salmon and steelhead fishing economy, including existing business. Any income added from a restored fishery, then, could only be calculated once the existing salmon economy is subtracted out.

In addition, reviewers said Reading did not adequately separate out local fishermen from out-of-state anglers. And he did not analyze what other sectors of the angling economy might lose if, say, local anglers went salmon fishing instead of trout fishing.

He also said he included costs that might, in fact, be paid in other places as anglers travel to Idaho from their home states.

"Like all things in economics," he said, "it depends on what kind of questions you ask. I asked very certain kinds of questions, and they think I should have asked other kinds of questions. That's fair. I'll ask new questions."

Reading is remarkably generous and open to those who have challenged his work, saying the discrepancy should spark more focused investigation into the value of sport fisheries.

"Hopefully," he said, "we'll start to get to where we all want to go. Let's get the numbers in line and make this thing work." But on some points, he said, the reviewers just didn't get it. His study, for instance, openly assumes that a sufficient business infrastructure exists to relieve all those fishermen of their money, even though everyone knows it does not.

Critics said the reality is that the infrastructure isn't there to fully support the salmon and steelhead economy, but Reading argues that isn't the point.

"I'm looking at the big picture of what's possible for these towns," he said. "I've said all along that the study is looking down the road at what could be, not what is."

He admits his $544 million projection is too high for any real "benefit," but he suspects the council's $7 million estimate will prove too low. The council, for its part, sticks by the assertion that although Reading's work "substantially overstates" the potential gains, a restored fishery "can result in large local impacts in some cases."

"Look," he said, "we're still talking millions and millions of dollars, very big bucks to these small towns. Nobody disputes that."

And while he doesn't yet know what the final estimate will look like, neither does he - nor anyone else for that matter - know what it would cost to bring such a fishery to reality.

For decades, salmon and steelhead runs have dwindled, blocked by big hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River basin. There have been plans to tweak the dams for fish passage, to truck fish around the dams and to remove the dams. Others say the answer will be found in hatcheries, or in reducing the downstream commercial catch.

Meanwhile, upstream in Montana, dam operators struggle to provide enough water for Idaho's migrating salmon and steelhead while at the same time holding back enough for resident bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. The wrangling over water and dam operations has been expensive and contentious, by all accounts.

Still no one, Reading said, knows what a fully restored Idaho fishery might cost.

If you could restore it for a quick billion and receive benefits totaling $500 million a year, he said, then it might make pretty good sense. But if restoration runs $100 billion and benefits total just $7 million a year, then it's obviously a much tougher sell.

For now, he said, it's enough to just estimate how much benefit there might be. He's sure it won't be the $544 million he initially projected, saying "it could come down a long ways from that, and if it does, I won't be surprised at all."

His revised work, he said, should be on the table for reviewers by winter's end.

The economic benefits of restoring salmon and steelhead sport fisheries highlights the agenda at the January meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Set for the 17th and 18th, the meeting takes place in Vancouver, Wash. For a full schedule, link to

Michael Jamison
Salmon Study Author Scales Back Findings
The Missoulian, January 20, 2006

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