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US Commerce Department Follows Flawed Bush Salmon Plan on Columbia and Snake Rivers

Administration avoids sound science and legal guidance
September 15, 2009

Hydropower dam on Columbia River, WA
Photo by US Army Corps of Engineers
Portland, OR — 
Today a broad coalition of businesses, clean energy advocates, and fishing and conservation groups voiced disappointment with the U.S. Commerce Department's decision to follow a flawed Bush 2008 biological opinion for the Columbia-Snake Rivers. The plan has been criticized by scientists and the courts, and runs counter to the advice of Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), more than 70 members of Congress, three former Northwest governors, thousands of scientists, and more than 200 businesses from across the nation. The groups are joined in the litigation by the State of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho.

NOAA Fisheries today filed documents with the U.S. Federal District Court in Portland, Oregon, indicating that the federal government would continue to support an old Bush-era federal salmon plan, with only minor, cosmetic changes. The decision includes support for the Bush-era scientific analysis, legal standard, and disregard for the impacts of dam operations and climate change on salmon.

Salmon advocates have long argued that this plan remains illegal under the Endangered Species Act and largely ignores the impact federal dams have on listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia-Snake River Basin. In fact, this plan allows the roll-back of current in-river salmon protections. District Court Judge James Redden has agreed with salmon advocates in challenges to two prior plans.

"This was a test for Commerce Secretary Gary Locke — on both economics and science — and this plan failed on both accounts," said Zeke Grader, Executive Director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "This decision will no doubt leave salmon in the perilous decline they have been in for years and communities up and down the coast and inland to Idaho will continue to suffer. For an administration so set on protecting and restoring jobs, this decision is a huge mistake and a clear signal to fishermen that their jobs don't count."

Commercial and sportfishing representatives from up and down the Pacific Coast sent a letter to Secretary Locke last week urging him to meet with them to begin a dialogue on how to address the Pacific coast salmon crisis that has plagued coastal communities over the last eight years. More than 25,000 jobs have been lost due to Columbia-Snake River salmon declines alone, and more jobs continue to be lost as major businesses that rely on salmon close their doors. Salmon advocates expect this new Obama plan to continue the practices of the Bush administration, allowing salmon declines to continue and salmon-related jobs and communities to suffer.

"Although the Bush administration is gone, unfortunately it looks like its policies will live on for Columbia-Snake salmon," said Bill Arthur, Deputy National Field Director for the Sierra Club. "It's a bit like the Night of the Living Dead, we keep fighting these failed and illegal salmon plans, but they continue to spring back to life. We had hoped that this administration wouldn't buy this badly flawed plan pushed by the regional bureaucrats who are opposed to change and fear science and would instead work with us to craft a plan that was both legal and scientifically sound. It's a grave disappointment to see another zombie plan instead. It's now time for the judge to bury this plan for good, and provide a fresh opportunity to get it right for the people, communities, and magnificent salmon and steelhead of the Northwest."

The administration's decision allows for a multi-year study — at some point in the future — of what is already a viable salmon recovery option — lower Snake River dam removal — and then only if already depressed salmon numbers plunge even further.

Todd True, one of the attorneys for the fishing and conservation groups in the litigation, said, "The government has failed completely to use the last four months of review for a serious, substantive, or cooperative effort to build a revised plan that follows the law and the science and leads to salmon recovery. Instead of the actions these fish need, they are offering a plan for more planning and a study for more studying. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their treatment of major changes to the dams and river operations, which are among the most critical issues for salmon survival and recovery. We look forward to explaining to the court just how little this latest effort accomplishes. We can do much better — but not by trying to avoid the problems facing wild salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers."

President Obama has made several public statements about protecting sound science. In his inaugural address, the President said that his administration would "restore science to its rightful place…" At the 160th Anniversary of the Department of Interior, he said that he would "help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act, a process undermined by past administrations[,]" and look "for ways to improve the [ESA] — not weaken it." The President echoed those statements in a speech before the National Academy of Sciences where he said: "Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over… To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy… [We will] ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information."

"This Bush salmon plan appears to be inconsistent with President Obama's public statements about relying on sound science," said Bill Shake, former Regional Director for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "We scientists believed the President when he said he would protect science and strengthen the ESA, but Secretary Locke has seemingly allowed political pressure to circumvent a decision based on sound science. The federal agency action today is a true reversal of fortune for the Pacific Northwest economy, for an important American resource and endangered species, for communities that depend on salmon for their livelihood, and those who believe that policy should be based on science not politics. We had hoped for more because fishing families and communities deserve more."

Opponents of following the science have called the idea of removing dams dangerous in light of climate change concerns. Salmon advocates, however, point to expert analysis from the NW Energy Coalition and a new analysis from the Northwest Conservation and Planning Council to show that protecting salmon and providing for a clean energy future is both imminently doable and affordable.

"We truly can have both clean, affordable energy and healthy salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest," said NW Energy Coalition Executive Director Sara Patton. "It's not an either/or. We have an abundance of untapped clean energy opportunities, so saying dam removal would lead to large increases in climate emissions is nonsense. The Northwest can show the rest of the country how to right our past mistakes while creating jobs and providing for a better future." 


Contact:

Todd True, Earthjustice, (206)343-7340
Emily Nuchols, Save Our Wild Salmon, (503) 230-0421, ext. 15
Zeke Grader, Institute for Fisheries Resources, (415) 561-5080
Bill Arthur, Sierra Club, (206) 378-0114, ext. 307
Sara Patton, NW Energy Coalition , (206) 621-0094