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'Critical Habitat' for Salmon in Peril

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, January 9, 2005

A new proposal by the Bush administration would strip Salmon Creek of its designation as key habitat for its namesake fish.

Fish continue to dwell within the 27-mile tributary, which runs through the heart of rapidly urbanizing Clark County. But the same economic pressures to build, dike and develop the land along its banks over the past century have reduced the creek's value as a refuge for salmon and steelhead.

So the National Marine Fisheries Service, complying with a recent court settlement, wants to remove Salmon Creek from a list of so-called "critical habitat" protected under the Endangered Species Act. Throughout the Northwest, the list would shrink by 80 percent.

The fisheries service released a voluminous proposal in November, and will take public comment on it at a hearing Tuesday evening at the Thunderbird Hotel in Jantzen Beach.

The agency maintains the move will make little difference. But environmental groups argue it would undermine fish recovery efforts.

Federal officials contend the designation of critical habitat may be extraneous because a general reading of the Endangered Species Act protects salmon.

Whether or not a stream carries the "critical habitat" name, the law requires federal agencies to make sure their actions don't jeopardize the existence of a species. Likewise, private individuals can be fined up to $50,000 or sentenced to a year in jail for harming an endangered species.

In the past, the fisheries service simply declared every river basin accessible to imperiled salmon as critical habitat.

"In 2000, we were designating critical habitat much more extensively than perhaps we should have," fisheries service spokesman Brian Gorman said.

A lawsuit brought by the National Association of Homebuilders in 2002 convinced the fisheries service to reconsider its policy.

The Bush administration agreed the law requires weighing economic losses against the benefit to the species when designating critical habitat. The fisheries agency found that designating critical habitat for 13 species in the Northwest listed as threatened or endangered exacted an economic cost of $264.7 million.

After taking into account the value of habitat to fish, the fisheries agency wants to drop the critical-habitat designation from several streams, including Salmon Creek for chinook and steelhead, and the Washougal River for chinook.

Even among streams where critical habitat still applies, the agency now proposes to scale back the designation only as far as a stream's bank width. In the past, the designation extended over land as far as the potential height of two fallen trees laid end to end on the theory that streamside development inevitably affects the stream itself.

"Now, we're really focused on the aquatic areas," said Steve Stone, an agency biologist in Portland.

Mark Plummer, an economist working at the agency's Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said the agency was unable to make a distinction between economic costs due to the mere presence of a threatened fish versus the economic costs due to an official designation of critical habitat.

"It's just another unnecessary layer of regulations," said Timothy Harris, chief counsel for the Building Industry Association of Washington.

An important layer, countered Jeff Curtis, western field representative for Trout Unlimited in Portland.

In the past, Curtis had said declaring critical habitat wasn't worth the trouble. But he changed his mind following a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last August.

The Vancouver-based Gifford Pinchot Task Force and other environmental groups challenged the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's protection of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl in national forests. The court ruled that critical habitat must be managed in a way that leads to a species' recovery potentially a higher bar than simply keeping a critter from going extinct.

"We're still trying to interpret what this really means," Stone said.

In practice, the distinction could make the difference between building a new parking lot farther back from a stream or not building it at all.

"By restricting the critical habitat greatly, they are limiting as much as they can their responsibility toward recovery," Curtis said.

Erik Robinson
'Critical Habitat' for Salmon in Peril
The Columbian, January 9, 2005

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