Habitat Restoration Gains Emphasis
by Jonathan Brinckman and Jim Barnett
Endangered salmon could be saved from extinction even if four dams on the lower Snake River remain in place, top federal officials say, citing new findings on the key role of habitat restoration.
The shift in thinking could transform the Northwest's fiercest environmental debate.
Just seven months ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that directs salmon recovery, called breaching the dams the surest way to restore endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead trout.
Agency officials now suggest that the region instead invest more money and make a much greater effort to restore the rivers and streams in which salmon spawn.
In a speech last month in Portland, Will Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, foreshadowed the shift. Stelle told state, tribal and federal officials that restoring streamside habitat and improving water quality would be the most effective ways to rebuild salmon populations.
"If we do not improve all the river systems draining into the Columbia and the Snake, we will not be successful in recovering salmon," Stelle said.
Top officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration -- the two other federal agencies most closely involved in Northwest salmon recovery -- echo that position.
Government scientists have spent three years studying whether breaching four dams on the lower Snake River would be the best way to save endangered fish. The dams would be breached by removing the earthen portions, allowing the river to flow freely around them.
The question of dam removal has been cast in the starkest terms: Yes or no? Save salmon or not?
Now the prospect of making habitat restoration the top priority offers a way out for federal agencies reluctant to anger industrial users of the river system and other supporters of dams.
But such efforts would bring their own pain:
The timber industry would come under tougher restrictions on logging and road-building along streams. Cattle ranchers would have to build more fences to keep cattle out of waterways. Developers would have less land to build on. City residents could face limits on use of household chemicals and pesticides that pollute urban streams. Farmers and municipalities could lose access to water because of measures to ensure adequate stream flows for fish.
Federal officials acknowledge that such measures could be no less expensive or controversial than breaching dams, which would cost an estimated $1 billion.
"The political pressure that is being put on decision-makers not to breach dams is going to be transferred from dams to habitat," said Brian Gorman, a fisheries service spokesman. "Those people whose oxen will be gored by the decision to put the burden on habitat improvement will complain as loudly as those that were worried about the dams."
Federal officials said effort seeks to lay out options for the region and stimulate discussion about what to do for all Columbia Basin salmon, not just the endangered and threatened Snake River stocks. In theory, at least, the report does not prescribe what should be done.
"We want to take to the region a range of options that you can mix and match," said Lorraine Bodi, a senior policy adviser for the BPA who helped draft the paper. "You can mix and match these options in different ways, so long as they add up to recovery for salmon."
Officials at several federal agencies declined to discuss specifics of the draft document, which they presented to Clinton administration officials last week. But it highlights four alternatives for saving salmon in the Columbia River Basin, a document obtained by The Oregonian shows.
Though the report makes no cost estimates, any of the four options would increase the scale of current recovery efforts, which cost about $500 million a year.
Three of the alternatives -- breaching the four dams, sharply reducing salmon harvests or doing both -- have little federal support, said officials involved in preparing the 4H Paper.
One reason: Recent improvements to help fish get past dams, coupled with agreements to increase river flows, have dramatically improved salmon survival. Any additional gain in survival rates from just breaching the dams would not be enough to save spring/summer chinook, Idaho's most important salmon stock.
Another: Harvest of Snake River salmon has been cut so drastically that further cutbacks could not restore fish runs.
"You can get some improvements in harvest and hydro, but it would not be that much," said Bodi of the BPA. "You have to improve habitat to get recovery. That's what this analysis is showing."
The fourth option presented in the 4H Paper -- the one federal agencies appear to favor -- calls for leaving dams in place but increasing spending on other measures that help salmon, including:
"If you have the federal government talking about controlling more water or the restriction of federal lands to protect fisheries, it's going to get pretty serious in Idaho," said Dick Larsen, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Water Resources.
Lenore Hardy Barrett, an Idaho state representative from Custer County in the state's rural interior, said residents would reject any proposal for further restrictions on grazing or mining. "That would fly like a wingless bird," she said. "We've been good stewards of the land, and they ought to just leave us alone."
Likewise, some Northwest members of Congress said they would oppose increased demands on states without more say by constituents whose lives would be most affected.
"If they try to impose a decision from the top down, that decision will not be accepted," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Darryll Olsen, an agricultural consultant in Pasco, Wash., predicts widespread opposition in the Inland Northwest to limiting water use.
Tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon also are worried. They strongly support breaching the four lower Snake River dams: Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor. Tribal officials contend that efforts to restore tributary habitat would not work quickly enough to aid Snake River salmon.
Although the 4H Paper sticks largely to science, it could serve as a catalyst for the policy and politics of fish recovery for months and years to come.
For starters, the report would solve a looming problem for the fisheries service: What to do if government scientists, as expected, recommend gathering more data before rendering a final decision on dam breaching?
The fisheries service has completed analysis of only three salmon stocks in the Columbia Basin. Nine stocks of endangered salmon and steelhead have yet to be analyzed.
A draft is being released now because the fisheries service must make its recommendation on breaching dams to a federal judge by April, at the height of the presidential political season. The 4H Paper could serve as the scientific and legal basis for recommending the decision be delayed.
If the judge allows more time for study, the paper could become a menu of recovery options for federal and state officials to choose from while government scientists go back to their laboratories.
NMFS 4-H Paper
Dave Hogan of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.
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