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Salmon: Facing the Dam Question

by Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 29, 2005

Federal efforts to protect Columbia River salmon runs must return to basics.

The fish, their ecosystem and the communities that live off the salmon must be protected. The Northwest economy must remain strong. Cooperative efforts, rather than divide-and-conquer tactics, provide the most hopeful avenues. Preserving endangered species is good sense, and it's the law.

The most basic matter is looking honestly at all options, including removal of four Snake River dams that pose perhaps insurmountable barriers to ever again having robust fish runs. There is no reason to pretend all the dams must be there forever.

As a judge's ruling on Thursday suggested, the federal effort has consistently failed to meet the essential criteria. It's a record that demands improvement.

At times, the authorities have come close to adequate planning. Much good work has been done. But, in a stinging and powerful decision, U.S. District Judge James Redden said the recovery efforts are based on legally and scientifically flawed analysis.

Although federal officials said they were disappointed, there was really nothing surprising about the decision. The NOAA Fisheries plan for balancing salmon and Columbia River system dam operations rested on the logically untenable assertion that the dams should be considered part of the ecosystem.

Redden's decision is, as he noted, the latest in a series of rulings over 11 years against the formal biological opinions underlying salmon recovery planning. The long record of failure in court points to the need for redirection. There is no room for more obscure legal maneuvering or science that strains to reach a politically dictated conclusion. Dam removal must receive honest analysis, either from federal bureaucrats or Congress, which could order action.

For years, politicians opposed to dam removal have paraded themselves as protectors of the economic well-being of communities along the Columbia and Snake rivers. The most recent studies done for environmental groups seem to point toward powerful overall economic advantages from dam removal. Economic assistance and transportation investment measures might well be much cheaper than the $6 billion cost of the wholly inadequate salmon recovery plan rejected by Redden.

Fish runs have dwindled for decades. Even the extremely modest recoveries of recent years have brought economic benefits. A real recovery of salmon runs would be a huge economic, cultural and social boost for the entire Northwest. As we look ahead, such hope -- founded on enduring wisdom about our ecosystem -- offers a better starting point than the worshipful protection of a few manmade structures.

Editorial Board
Salmon: Facing the Dam Question
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 29, 2005

Let's rebuild this Mother Earth.

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