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The Wild

Last week the U.S. Senate moved forward on important legislation that ensures our streams, lakes, rivers and wetlands remain clean and safe. By a vote of 12-7, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced a compromise version of the Clean Water Restoration Act, important legislation that reinforces the scope of the Clean Water Act by guaranteeing that our nation's waterways are clean to swim and fish in and safe to drink.

The saga of mountaintop removal continues, and this time it's headed to Congress. Two proposed bills—one in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives—could curtail mountaintop removal mining by banning certain activities related to this destructive mining practice.

Remember "Healthy Forests"? This was one of the euphonious program names hatched by Karl Rove or another of the Bush wordsmiths to mask a real purpose. There was also the Clear Skies Initiative, which actually aimed to weaken the Clean Air Act.

Healthy Forests argued that the best way to control wildlfire and protect rural communities was to thin the forests of dead brush and sick trees, such growth having accumulated to dangerous levels owing to decades of fire suppression.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Don Federico, a Panamanian fisherman who has spent more than 26 years at sea and has thousands of stories to share. He told us what it was like when he first began fishing:

"We saw dolphins, whales, sharks and turtles everywhere. Out of ignorance, the fishing boats would catch and kill upwards of 300 dolphins per day, and the children would play with turtle eggs on the beaches."

Now, less than three decades later, Don Federico explained that there is none of that.

Back in my early days at Earthjustice I got into an argument with a colleage that has stuck with me ever since. She (no names) observed that if we—the movement in general—conceded that restoration of damaged ecosystems is possible that we'll never be able to protect forests, wetlands, parks and the like because developers could simply say they'll eventually restore the land to its former glory.

Two months ago, the Obama administration stunned the environmental community by removing northern gray wolves from the Endangered Species list. In doing so, the administration went along with one of the more onerous acts of the Bush administration. It also was the first major departure by the administration from the pro-environment path it had been on since Obama took office.

The wonderful and valuable High Country News has published a very instructive buttal and rebuttal that arise from an article in the print version of the paper that analyzed the long-running struggle over four power dams built on the lower Snake River in the 1960s. Those dams and their reservoirs have long been criticized by scientists and conservationists as inimical to the survival and recovery of once-stupendous salmon runs in the Columbia basin.

(The dams have also been the subject of a long litigation campaign by Earthjustice and its allies, who would like to see the dams removed, or at least breached.)

The Bonneville Power Administration, which operates the dams, has fought vigorously to keep the dams, even arguing in court papers that the structures have been in place so long that they’ve become a permanent, all but natural, fixture in the river, like boulders or eddies.

BPS’s Gregory K. Delwiche wrote a long and fairly sober answer to Ken Olsen’s original piece, that makes good sense—until you read Olsen’s reply. It’s a fascinating exchange, worth taking the time to read. I pretend no particular expertise in this debate, but one of Delwiche’s assertions caught my eye: In response to the claim by Olsen that BPA’s practice is to use all the water in the river for power generation, Delwiche wrote,

The federal agencies operating the hydro system never put "every drop of water" through turbines. It is common practice to spill water around turbines for fish. In 2008, for example, BPA spent $275 million buying replacement power to make up for power not generated at the dams because water was being diverted for fish.

What he didn’t say, and what I know only because of where I work, is that the spilling of water to aid salmon downstream migration came only with a court order, issued by Judge James Redden. Take a look. It’s fascinating stuff.

Meanwhile, Judge Redden has just written to the BPA urging prompt and vigorous efforts to reform river management. One might guess that he’s closer to Olsen than [the BPA guy] in this matter.

A press release came across my screen Wednesday afternoon announcing that a judge had found that Glen Canyon dam's operating scheme is illegal, since it doesn't do enough to protect endangered fish in the river.

That's putting it mildly.

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