The tide may be turning for salmon

PAUL VANDEVELDER, author of "Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes and the Trial That Forged a Nation," is at work on a new book, "Savages and Scoundrels," for Yale University Press.

AS THE little hand on the extinction clock for salmon on the West Coast ticks toward zero hour -- 2017, according to fisheries biologists -- battle-weary parties in the almost 20-year-old dispute over how to rescue the fish now agree on one thing. With fish counts bumping historic lows, the entire West Coast salmon fishing industry shut down in 2006 to preserve dwindling stocks, and the price of wild salmon soaring to $30 a pound, the human contest over the salmon’s survival has reached its endgame.

Since the Snake River coho salmon were declared extinct in the late 1980s, the players in the “salmon wars” have remained remarkably constant. State governments, fisheries biologists, Indian tribes, conservation groups and fishermen have all backed salmon recovery. In addition to generating billions of dollars in revenue in communities from Central California to the Canadian border, salmonids are the coastal ecosystem’s “keystone” species on which more than 500 others -- wolves, bears, chipmunks, otters and fish eagles, to name some -- depend for their survival. Remove the salmon, say marine biologists, and the whole system collapses.

On the other side of the salmon wars are the hydropower and aluminum industries, commercial irrigators, inland wheat farmers and barge operators, whose livelihoods depend on cheap power, cheap water and cheap transportation made possible by dams on the Columbia, Snake and Klamath rivers. On balance, the latter interests have had the upper hand.

Despite important victories in court for advocates of salmon recovery, fish counts on these rivers have continued to fall. But in June, there were signs that the tide of the battle may be shifting. Setting a deadline of this July, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden gave the federal government one last chance to produce a recovery plan that would meet its legal responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act. Struggling to contain his ire, Redden told reporters that the government’s previous three efforts -- two put forth by the Clinton administration, one by the Bush administration -- to rescue salmon had been “made sick” by political quarreling. In the 15 years since the National Marine Fisheries Service and the government began writing “biological opinions” that would serve as the scientific foundation of strategies to save the salmon, legislative and judicial squabbling and stalling had brought 13 salmon stocks to the brink of extinction.

Redden ordered the Bonneville Power Administration, the semi-federal agency responsible for generating and distributing hydropower generated in the Columbia River basin, to spill water from five of its dams. At the very least, the spills would help juvenile salmon, otherwise trapped in warm water behind the dams, to reach the sea. A few weeks after the order, the National Marine Fisheries Service, in a last-ditch effort to save the Klamath River salmon, declared the moratorium on all commercial salmon fishing off the coasts of Northern California, Oregon and Washington state.


Power officials, irrigators, barge operators and their Republican allies in Congress raced to microphones with ridiculous predictions of doom for the fish migrating upstream in the fall and gloom for consumers because the forced “drawdowns” would result in $46 million in electricity rate hikes.

As it turned out, the hysteria, whipped up by such politicians as Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), over Redden’s order to release water amounted to silliness. Juvenile fish counts soared in the late summer and fall of 2006, increasing year over year by 40%, and the power agency ended up saving money, thanks to heavy spring runoff.

Nevertheless, Craig, the National Hydropower Assn.'s legislator of the year in 2002, sought to undercut Redden’s authority by attaching a provision to a water bill in Congress that would end funding for the federal Fish Passage Center. The center, created by Congress in the 1990s, is the only agency that monitors the fish counts used to assess the welfare of endangered species. Despite protests from salmon-dependent tribes and states, the water bill containing Craig’s provision passed. The agency was dismantled. As fish counts “went dark,” the Yakima tribe filed suit against the Bonneville Power Administration, whose budget had included the data-collecting agency, to bring back the Fish Passage Center.

A week and a half ago, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Craig’s measure “was arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.” The panel of judges ordered the power agency to restore the Fish Passage Center.

Then Wednesday, the Department of the Interior surprised both sides of the salmon wars when it announced that Warren Buffett’s Portland-based PacifiCorp, owner of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, would have to install $470 million worth of fish-friendly apparatus as a condition of its license renewal to operate the dams. Because PacifiCorp’s only other option is dam removal, estimated to cost $100 million less than the improvements, the decision means that the four dams, in all likelihood, will be destroyed. Short-term, PacifiCorp will lose an estimated $27 million a year in ratepayer receipts. Long-term, a healthy salmon fishery will produce billions of dollars in revenue for coastal communities.

In the Columbia River basin, the last hope for dam defenders is to find a judge willing to remove Redden from the case. But the prospects for that happening are dim because the judge has compiled a record of fairness and restraint on the issue.

When that effort fails, the path to salmon recovery may thus finally be cleared of political debris and legal hurdles. In the basin, which includes the Snake River, Redden is the one man in the country who has the authority to take charge of the rivers’ management, and he awaits the White House’s final report. If the fourth plan for salmon recovery doesn’t measure up, the judge has stated in plain English that he will step into the river and take the fish by the gills. At that point, all options for the Snake River salmon, including the solution recommended by leading fisheries biologists -- dam removal -- will be on the table.

Against this backdrop, the battle over salmon recovery has, in one important respect, ceased to be merely about fish counts. For the defenders of the dams, it was a test of man’s dominion over natural resources and the logic of the marketplace. For the defenders of the fish, it was a test of our willingness to curb our appetite for a comfort of civilization to ensure the survival of another species. If we can’t do this for the salmon, they ask, what species, including ours, can call itself safe?