Salmon Plan Given Brief Reprieve

PORTLAND, Oregon, June 27, 2003 (ENS) - The federal plan to restore Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead will remain in effect for another 11 months while the Bush administration rewrites it, a federal judge decided Thursday. Conservationists had hoped the government would be ordered to vacate the plan, which they believe is not working and needs to be completely overhauled.

U.S. District Judge James Redden, who last month ruled the plan - known as the 2000 Biological Opinion - invalid, said a more detailed opinion outlining the rationale for the decision not to vacate will be issued next week, but indicated that the court would be closely monitoring implementation of the plan as it is revised.

"The court has made clear that it will be keeping a very close eye on this process over the next 11 months," said Steve Mashuda of the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "We will have an opportunity to address any concerns and problems that arise during that process and quickly bring them to the court's attention."

"The current plan is illegal and there is nothing in this newest ruling that changes that reality," said Jan Hasselman of the National Wildlife Federation, another plaintiff in the case. "Fundamental rethinking will be required to come up with a plan that really recovers salmon. More paperwork and minor tweaks are not going to get us there." dam

Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead must survive up to eight dams in order to spawn. (Photo courtesy Save Our Wild Salmon)
The 2000 Biological Opinion, which includes a slew of federal agencies, lays out 199 specific measures to be implemented over 10 years to protect Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead from the adverse impacts of the federal dam system. It stipulates that breaching four dams on the lower Snake River - a move that federal scientists and many others believe is the key to restoring the fish - is not an option.

Judge Redden, in a legal challenge to the plan brought by a coalition of conservationists, commercial and recreational fishers, and Indian tribes, ruled the plan violated the Endangered Species Act and determined there was no certainty that the recommended actions in the plan would be carried out.

Critics of the biological opinion asked the court to formally set it aside because of concerns that keeping it in place might discourage the Bush administration and the agencies involved from taking the additional steps needed to protect the fish until a new opinion is prepared.

In addition, they worry keeping the plan in place could allow it to be used incorrectly to justify harmful actions.

They cited the example of the past declarations of power emergencies by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency integral to the plan because it oversees 31 federal hydroelectric projects in the region, including dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

This type of declaration is allowable under a loophole in the plan, salmon advocates explain, enabling the BPA to suspend spill over the dams. Critics say past declarations have resulted in the worst in-river salmon survival since the fish were listed. fishladder

The plan calls for improvement of fish ladders around some of the dams. (Photo by Doug Thiele courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Bush administration and other supporters of the plan had urged the judge not to vacate it in the interim, and at a Senate hearing this week indicated that they believe the plan does not need the major overhaul conservationists support.

Vacating the plan would lead to "chaos" and would have severe consequences for the federal agencies, the hydroelectric power system and the fish, Bob Lohn, regional administrator of Northwest Region for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to a Senate subcommittee this week.

"The judge ruled the biological opinion was not adequate," Lohn said. "I read the ruling as basically a technical opinion."

That statement makes salmon advocates nervous that the administration is not serious about revamping the biological opinion.

"The federal government still seems to believe the Columbia River salmon plan is 'on track,' but it is clearly in denial," said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, one of several plaintiffs in the case.

The court ruled did not just rule the plan illegal and not on track, Spain said, but found that "many of the tracks do not even exist."

A report by the advocacy group Save Our Salmon, which was released in February, found that federal agencies received half of the funding required by the plan and accomplished less than 30 percent of the work.

The estimated cost of full implementation is some $900 million annually for 10 years - in 2002, the plan received some $439.8 million. chinook

Advocates want to see large, healthy populations of wild salmon and steelhead like this chinook salmon. (Photo by Jo Keller courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Forging a new plan to save fish that nearly everyone involved refers to as an icon of the Pacific Northwest will be far from easy.

The four governors of the affected states - Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana - met earlier this month and pledged that breaching the four lower Snake River dams is not on the table.

Advocates urge the Bush administration to provide the opportunity for the public, the states and the tribes to fully participate in the process of reworking the plan.

"States and tribes have a lot of expertise and in many cases better data than the federal agencies," Steven Huffaker, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and a representative of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, said at this week's Congressional hearing.

"We must allow states and tribes more access to the federal process of decision making," Huffaker said.

Congress needs to look at what all the federal agencies - including those not closely tied to the Biological Opinion - as well as what state, tribal and local organizations to restore wild salmon and steelhead, Huffaker said, in order "to identify and clarify those roles."

The opinion to be issued next week by Judge Redden will include the court's expectations for how the administration will manage the plan's rewriting process.