Once More, with Feelingby Editors
Daily Astorian, May 31, 2005
Judge Redden amplifies a message that fishermen and tribes have sent for years
A federal judge's ruling in Portland last week sounds a lot like what Columbia River fishermen, conservationists and tribes have been shouting for years. To wit: Agencies can't legally skew Endangered Species Act decisions in favor of hydropower, irrigators and other upriver economic interests.
The ESA laws and, more importantly, the realities of endangered species recovery do not neatly conform to whatever is most convenient for the political operatives who staff the upper levels of the NOAA Fisheries service, Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In a long series of actions that would be politically and legally inconceivable today, these federal agencies turned the world's greatest salmon river into a series of canals, dams and reservoirs. Those who profit from the status quo have tried every trick in the book to keep the nation from revisiting this decision to harness the Columbia-Snake River system regardless of environmental cost.
Their latest ploy, which Judge James A. Redden of the Federal District Court rejected last week, was to define dams as if they are part of the Northwest's natural geology - big rocks across the river that can never be removed under any circumstances.
Redden didn't say any dams have to come down. A decision that expensive and far-reaching would require the sort of comprehensive national discussion that wasn't allowed before our dam-building began. But his ruling does mean the federal agencies can't simply define their way out of an endangered species problem by removing from the equation major factors like dams.
In a sense, the threat of dam breaching already has achieved some notable victories for the cause of salmon recovery. Running scared, the agencies and the corporations that depend on an industrialized Columbia have of late been giving this issue nearly the attention it deserves. Over the next decade, up to $6 billion is targeted for fish-friendly improvements at the dams.
Unfortunately, a half century of treating salmon as an afterthought has left salmon runs in such a precarious situation that it's impossible to even accurately predict how many will return to the river each year. The failure of this spring's run of chinook salmon, something unforeseen by agency experts, is a loud and clear alarm telling us that salmon still are far from recovery, despite the billions spent so far.
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