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Commentaries and editorials

Fisheries Service Hurt Salmon-Recovery Efforts, say Number of Officials

by Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, September 25, 2001

The federal effort to recover Northwest salmon has been hurt by the "inconsistent, unresponsive and unnecessarily arrogant and confrontational" conduct of National Marine Fisheries Service officials, according to a draft audit completed in August 2000 but never publicly released.

The 14-page draft report by the U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Inspector General, titled "Leadership Lacking in Northwest Salmon Recovery Effort," involved interviews with more than 34 government, tribal and industry officials. More than 80 percent of these officials said that the fisheries service had "failed" in collaborative efforts, with the harshest criticism coming from state agencies and tribal organizations.

The audit examined the fisheries service's efforts to protect salmon and steelhead runs across a broad sweep of the Pacific Northwest. The agency has pressed for new restrictions on logging, agriculture and development, and has undertaken a cumbersome permit-review process.

The agency has often been a lightning rod for criticism, with environmentalists saying agency efforts sometimes fall far short of protecting salmon while others complain of heavy-handed policies.

The draft report was never finalized, according to federal officials. Instead, it was condensed into a confidential four-page memorandum submitted April 27, 2000, by the Office of Inspector General to William Hogarth, then-acting assistant administrator for fisheries. The memorandum noted that the agency had been criticized for its inability to collaborate on salmon recovery, but it dropped much of the sharp language of the draft.

Both the draft report and memorandum were released yesterday by Okanogan County officials, who were interviewed by auditors about a fisheries-service order to restrict the use of irrigation water that flowed across Forest Service lands.

Okanogan County officials sought release of the draft and final documents through the Freedom of Information Act. That effort failed, but they were able to obtain leaked copies of the documents.

"We think that it is obvious that there is an obvious attempt to cover up this information," said Craig Vejraska, an Okanogan County commissioner.

Fisheries-service officials say that they were told that the audit was never completed because of budget cuts. They were aware of the April 27 memo and have taken steps to improve communication on salmon-recovery efforts

"I think a great deal of the criticism is valid," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service in Seattle. "I think that every government agency when it goes through a period of rapid growth as we did when we started making listings in earnest finds itself with some staff not doing a perfect job."

Over the past year, the agency has tried to improve communication with other groups. Those efforts include contracting with a private consultant to help with public relations, hiring a staff member to work with tribes, and developing a computer system to help track the progress of permits.


Hal Bernton
Fisheries Service Hurt Salmon-Recovery Efforts, say Number of Officials
The Seattle Times, September 25, 2001

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