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Commentaries and editorials

A Balanced Approach
to Salmon Policy Evaluation

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, July 2006

Salmon and Dams

We are nearing the end of this series on Columbia River salmon and dams. The next installment will address the "decision analysis" section of BiOp2000, the part that directs or recommends action. The following, and final, installment will ask how the tragedy of '90s salmon policy (embodied in BiOp2000 and the unfolding drama in Judge Redden's court) might be avoided in the future, if not in the Columbia Basin then elsewhere in the rural West.

This month I want to describe a more balanced approach to salmon policy evaluation. Specifically, I am going to talk about benefit cost and cost effectiveness analysis.

When I started this series I was guided by the official categories for salmon conservation measures used in BiOp2000. The first categories were the 4Hs; referring to measures addressing (H)atchery practice, (H)ydro operations, (H)arvest regulation and (H)abitat management. The 4Hs were adopted by or included in BiOp2000 at the time of publication in December 2000. Many had been in effect for years or decades.

Snake River dam breaching was the other category. Not even the Endangered Species Act (ESA) gives NOAA Fisheries power to remove dams. So BiOp2000 called on the agency to request congressional dam removal authority, should its staff subsequently determine the 4Hs failed to achieve ESA compliance. (More next installment on how that decision was to be arrived at.)

I now think there are better categories to classify salmon conservation measures, certainly from the standpoint of Wheat Life readers. Past columns have shown there is no "salmon crisis." There will be salmon in the Columbia River, under all management proposals, for as long as anyone can reasonably forecast the future. This will include reasonable numbers of so-called "wild" (in-stream spawning) salmon along with more abundant hatchery fish. Salmon will be adequately distributed by geographic area and genetic type. Together, "wild" and hatchery salmon will accommodate reasonable harvests by commercial, recreational and tribal fishermen.

What will distinguish salmon conservation measures will be their cost. This is where Wheat Life readers come in. They get to pay the bills, some as eastern Washington farmers and rural residents, others as Northwest electricity consumers, all as federal taxpayers.

The costs of some measures are reasonable. The barging program costs only a few million dollars per year and could potentially transport most Snake River and above-Bonneville Columbia River salmon smolts all the way to sea, thus entirely avoiding dam and reservoir hazards. Costs of other measures range from the ridiculous to the apparently vindictive. Snake River dam breaching would destroy hydroelectric production capacity otherwise capable of serving Seattle or Portland. Flow augmentation measures presented to Judge Redden could drain reservoirs as far away as Montana and Canada, the latter requiring payment of compensation to Canada.

Let's divide salmon conservation measures into two categories based on cost, draconian and non-draconian. The distinguishing characteristic of non-draconian measures (like barging) is their proponent's commitment to reconciling salmon and non-salmon river uses. The distinguishing characteristic of draconian measures (like dam breaching) is lack of such commitment.

Columbia River salmon are to my knowledge the only animal population the government considers both threatened/endangered (i.e., ESA listed) and sufficiently abundant to justify harvest. Before they were listed under ESA, a common practice was to apply criteria to government salmon conservation programs similar to those used by the private (fishing) businesses they supported. That meant comparing salmon benefits (commercial and sport harvest values) with salmon costs (usually hatchery construction and operation costs).

Theoretically, the same benefit cost analysis procedure could have been applied to BiOp2000 salmon conservation measures. Like earlier salmon programs, their goal was producing or preserving salmon benefits (commercial and sport harvests and possibly intangible "aesthetic" values). They also have costs, including direct public expenditures, as well as foregone electricity, irrigation and other non-salmon river uses.

I say theoretically. Readers unaware of current attitudes toward economics in today's official "salmon world" are invited to perform this experiment. Raise the subject of salmon benefit cost analysis with an environmentalist or salmon advocate. However, recognize you are embarking on an adventure sport. That means taking precautions. Keep your back to a solid object and plan your escape before opening discussion of the most heretical idea in all salmon-dom, that salmon should pay their own way in the form of contributions to human interests and values.

It wasn't always this way. Benefit cost analysis evolved during the '30s to evaluate federally supported land and water resource projects, primarily in the West. See the cited reference for details. Conflict was part of that evolution. Local communities (and their congressmen) wanted their favorite projects, regardless of contributions (or lack thereof) to national economic well being. Environmentalists, who opposed most projects, were equally indifferent to interests other than their own cherished causes. But there was a balance between the greater good and parochial interests. Don't get me started on how ESA destroyed that balance. Maybe some other day.

Being historically, politically and culturally explainable does not make today's aversion to benefit cost analysis any less regrettable. The most promising (non-draconian) salmon conservation measures (like barging) would most likely pass a salmon-pay-their-own-way test. Aggressively searching for similar salmon-pay-their-own-way solutions during the '90s might have averted, and certainly would have diminished, the current salmon versus economy conflict. Winners would have been Northwesterners who value salmon and non-salmon resources by a common yardstick of contribution to a comprehensively defined public interest.

That winning group could have included sport, commercial and tribal salmon fishermen. No, fishermen would not have gotten all the salmon they want or they remember from the "old days." As an avid sport fishermen and hunter, I know how unattainable such goals are today, regardless of the species or measures taken on its behalf.

Salmon-pay-their-own-way is not the only benefit cost criterion. Cost effectiveness analysis is a modification of benefit cost procedure that accounts for non-economic conditions and objectives, such as those enshrined in ESA. Under cost effectiveness analysis, conservation measures would have been ranked according to economic cost of achieving stipulated non-economic goals or conditions. Skipping a lot of details, the more stringent the non-economic conditions, the more expensive the cost effective (cheapest) measures for attaining them.

In addition to economic savings, a benefit cost or cost effectiveness approach would have acknowledged the legitimacy of all effected parties, particularly cost bearers. By contrast, the analysis reported in BiOp2000 has fueled anger since its publication. One source of that anger is the document author's disregard for costs. That disregard amounts to rejecting the legitimacy of the interests and values of those who bear those costs.

Enough theory. Next installment we dip back into the details of BiOp2000, this time treading (carefully) down the hall of mirrors called its decision analysis.

Reference: "Economic and Environmental Principles and Guidelines for Water and Related Land Resources Implemen- tation Studies" U.S. Water Resources Council, March 10, 1983 (

Related Pages:
Hundreds in Idaho Mourn Former Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage by Jesse Harlan Alderman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/9/6

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
A Balanced Approach to Salmon Policy Evaluation
Wheat Life, July 2006

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