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The Political Science of Salmon Recovery

by Paul Vandevelder
The Oregonian, September 20, 2004

One fine day last spring, officials of the Bonneville Power Administration walked into a meeting with the Columbia River Tribal Fish Commission in Portland carrying a bombshell: The annual summer spill of water over Columbia River dams, timed to help juvenile salmon reach the sea from mountain lakes in Idaho, was going to be halted this year. Instead, the BPA announced it would use the water to generate power to lower utility rates throughout the region.

Tribal leaders listened in stunned silence. This was a galling breech of agreements that had taken a dozen years, and billions of dollars, to hammer out.

"The Bush administration was determined to politicize the science of the salmon recovery from the moment they took office," says Charles Hudson, spokesman for the tribal fish commission. "We never thought they'd be this brazen."

The administration had little to lose. If the gambit worked, the president could deal himself a trump card of lowered utility rates in the fall elections. If it failed, he could accuse renegade judges of caring more about fish than people.

The tribes, on the other hand, had a lot to lose. Since the mid-1980s they have learned a thing or two about political gamesmanship, a sophistication belied by the fact that they seldom resort to flexing their legal muscles to win an argument. Now, however, the BPA left them few options.

The tribes threw down the gauntlet in early July, asking a federal court to reject the BPA's "emergency request to curtail spill." On July 28, federal District Court Judge James A. Redden declared the BPA plan illegal and ordered the spill to go forward. The BPA appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and two weeks later the 9th agreed with Redden.

Two weeks before the scheduled release of the long-awaited salmon recovery plan by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the tribal fish commission hailed the court's decision as a landmark victory for salmon and treaty rights:

"We are pleased that the spill for salmon will continue," said Anthony Johnson, the Nez Perce tribal chairman. "Barging and trucking these fish is not working. Breaching the four lower Snake River dams and investing in local communities continues to be the best option for salmon and the region, both biologically and economically."

The chairman's remark about the Snake River dams was not an afterthought. It mirrors the consensus of aquatic biologists, economists and a team of reporters and editors at the Idaho Statesman newspaper in Boise. A year-long investigation by the paper into the economics of dams, and the science of salmon recovery, led them to a startling conclusion: The billions of dollars spent to restore biological vitality and health to endangered salmon runs would be money down a rat hole until the four Snake River dams were removed.

Drum roll. On Sept. 9, the National Marine Fisheries Service unveiled its new-and-improved salmon recovery plan for 12 salmon runs in the Columbia River basin. In the 1995 and 2000 versions of this plan, native fishing was recognized to have been an integral feature of the "natural environmental baseline" for more than 10,000 years. Conversely, dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers were listed as "impacts" on that biological baseline. In the 1995 and 2000 recovery plans there was no disagreement over the cause and effect of plummeting fish counts, and it could be summed up in a single word: dams.

The Bush administration never liked that conclusion. The 2004 salmon recovery plan previewed two weeks ago declares that dams pose "no jeopardy" to the salmon and should be considered a part of the natural landscape, as if they were left there by the receding ice sheets of the last ice age, 16,000 years ago. In other words, for the purpose of salmon recovery efforts, dams are off the table. Native fishing, on the other hand, is now listed as an "impact."

The Bush plan, say the tribes and their allies, doesn't even meet the straight-face test.

"What will they say next," asked Rob Masonis, the regional director for American Rivers, "that the future of the passenger pigeon looks bright?"

Good question.

Officials at the national fisheries service argue that advancements in the design of removable weirs makes dams compatible with salmon recovery. Conservationists counter that data gathered on these contraptions tells a different story. The new weirs, which will cost taxpayers and ratepayers tens of millions of dollars, promise to increase the number of fish returning from the sea by less than 1 percent. On a good year.

So when the administration's salmon recovery plan gets thrown out by the courts in coming months -- and we all reach into our pockets to pony up millions more dollars to separate politics from science in yet another salmon recovery plan -- we'd do well to humor ourselves with Mark Twain's verdict on people: If they started out dead we'd all be better off, because they'd begin being honest that much sooner.

Paul Vandevelder lives in Corvallis. His new book, "Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation," tells the six-generation story of the Mandan/Hidatsa family that sheltered Lewis and Clark during the winter of 1805.
The Political Science of Salmon Recovery
The Oregonian, September 20, 2004

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