Feds Set Salmon Planby Lance Robertson
The Register-Guard - July 28, 2000
Rejecting dam breaching as an immediate option for saving the Northwest's salmon from extinction, federal officials on Thursday unveiled a long-awaited strategy that focuses instead on improving water quality, leaving more water in streams, restoring fish habitat and changing the way hatcheries operate.
The recovery strategy calls for "a major overhaul" of the region's 29 federally operated dams - including several that block the upper Willamette and McKenzie rivers - and includes a large-scale effort to restore fish habitat on the McKenzie.
At stake are 12 salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River and its tributaries that are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
"The challenge we face here is a very daunting one," said George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "Extinction is not an option."
Frampton said the strategy, which covers an area in six states from the mouth of the Columbia to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, "is the most complex ecosystem restoration plan ever mounted," and will dwarf efforts in the mid-1990s to protect the northern spotted owl.
A major focus in recent years has been the question of whether to breach four Snake River dams that block 70 percent of the remaining salmon habitat in the Columbia River Basin.
Frampton said that while dam breaching "is the single most beneficial thing we could do for the Snake River runs," the government is going to take other measures to keep the fish from becoming extinct.
That's because breaching Snake River dams would not help other runs, such as spring chinook and steelhead in the upper Willamette, he said.
However, Frampton said tearing down the four Snake River dams will be reconsidered if the other measures don't work within 10 years, or if Congress refuses to fund them.
Such an effort will cost "in the hundreds of millions of dollars" a year, he said. A specific funding proposal will be submitted to Congress this fall, but conservationists and others said the cost could be $500 million or more per year.
Opponents of breaching the four Snake River dams hailed Thursday's announcement. They had warned that breaching the dams could seriously harm the region's economy and wouldn't guarantee survival of the species.
The new strategy is "an affirmation that breaching dams is not a cure-all for saving salmon," Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said.
Environmentalists and groups representing fishing interests criticized the Clinton administration for sidestepping the dam-breaching issue but said the recovery strategy announced Thursday included many good points.
"The Snake River, the heart of the Columbia basin, needs a quadruple bypass, but the agencies are proposing only a face-lift," the Sierra Club's Bill Arthur said.
Liz Hamilton, director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said it made no sense to delay the one thing the government admits would provide the biggest benefit for salmon.
"The dance tune is right," she said. "We just need to lead with the other foot."
Indian tribes were highly critical of the plan and called it a declaration of war. They promised to file lawsuits and start acts of civil disobedience.
The government released three separate documents Thursday: a "recovery plan" intended to guide efforts to rebuild the dwindling salmon runs, and two "biological opinions" that tell federal agencies what they must do to avoid violations of the Endangered Species Act.
The biological opinions, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, conclude that the way the government now manages hatcheries, hydroelectric dams, sport and commercial fisheries programs and habitat-regulation efforts "jeopardizes the continued existence" of the salmon and steelhead runs, and bull trout populations.
All the documents spell out general actions that agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and federal Bonneville Power Administration must take to avoid violating the species law.
For example, the government wants more water released from federal dams at certain times of year to help migrating salmon. That might mean less water will be available in reservoirs for recreation, irrigation, power generation or flood control.
Cougar, Lookout Point, Dexter, Fall Creek and Hills Creek dams are among the reservoirs that will have to change the way they operate.
"The corps (of engineers) needs to run the Willamette Valley reservoirs for fish, not just for ski boaters," said Hamilton, of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
The recovery plan also includes major efforts - provided money is available - to restore habitat in the McKenzie River Basin, lower Columbia and other watersheds. The government said it also wants to provide money and assistance to private landowners to restore streams to good health.
The plan calls for establishing benchmarks for meeting environmental standards, along with a timetable.
It also includes a water-purchase program in which water would be bought and left in the rivers instead of removed for irrigation and other uses.
Glen Spain, spokesman in Eugene for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said the the new strategy is too vague and uncertain.
"It's a lot of hope and wish and very little substance," Spain said. "They still need to go a long way to fill in the details."
State and tribal governments have 60 days to comment on the documents.
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