Today, a federal court rejected as illegal a federal agency plan to protect vanishing wild salmon and steelhead from the harmful effects of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The court ruled that the plan fell well short of meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Salmon advocates have been pointing to the plan’s inadequacies since it was released in December of 2000.
“This decision creates a great opportunity,” said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “By rejecting the administration’s salmon plan because it lacks scientific credibility, the door is open to fashioning a plan based on sound science that will save salmon and help build a sound economic future for all the region’s people – farm, rural, Tribal and urban. We hope this administration will take an honest look at what’s really needed to restore wild salmon in the Snake and Columbia River basin and invest in the future economic opportunities that a restored river resource could offer.”
A coalition of fishing businesses and energy and conservation groups filed the lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, now NOAA Fisheries, in May 2001 because it ignored lethal river conditions created by the dams and instead relied too heavily on future, speculative actions of other federal and non-federal entities to make up for the massive number of salmon that are killed by the dams every year.
“We are not so rich that we can afford to lose our wild salmon or so poor that we must keep the Snake River dams that are killing them,” said Carl Pope, executive director, Sierra Club. “The court’s ruling reminds us that we cannot pretend to have solved a problem that we haven’t yet really addressed. Now is the time for the whole country to join with the Northwest and insist that we take bold steps that will bring back the wild salmon in the Columbia Basin.”
The court found that the federal plan improperly relied on actions that may not ever occur to make up for the mortality caused by the federal dams. Specifically, the court determined that the “record clearly establishes that NOAA improperly relied on range-wide off-site federal mitigation actions . . . and non-federal mitigation actions that are not reasonably certain to occur in order to” conclude that salmon will survive.
“This was always just a plan about planning – one that put off for tomorrow decisions we need to make now if our children are to enjoy wild salmon in a river that is the heart of this region,” said Todd True, attorney, Earthjustice. “The court saw through the plan’s empty promises and said they are not enough to comply with the law. These fish are in real trouble; they need real action. The court has given us all an opportunity to take effective action now.”
The federal plan called for only small changes in federal dam operations and relied heavily on voluntary restoration actions by other federal and non-federal entities. It even continues to allow the federal dams to kill as many as 90 percent of some salmon populations.
“Salmon and fishing communities have long borne the weight of bad federal decisions,” said Glen Spain, NW regional director, Pacific Coast Fishermen’s Federation. “What the court said is that the federal government should go back and get it right this time, before both the salmon and the fishing communities that once depended upon them all go extinct.”
As NOAA Fisheries acknowledges in its briefs, salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers “remain in a state of perilous decline throughout the…Basin.” While these fish were once the backbone of a prosperous Northwest fishing and recreation economy, construction of four federal dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington have caused the largest salmon populations in the Basin to plummet. Now 12 salmon and steelhead populations are imperiled throughout the Basin and all Snake River salmon are either listed under the Endangered Species Act or have already gone extinct.
Plaintiffs in this case include National Wildlife Federation, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Washington Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Idaho Rivers United, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Idaho Salmon and Steelhead Unlimited, Friends of the Earth, American Rivers, Federation of Fly Fishers, Salmon For All, NW Energy Coalition, and Columbia Riverkeeper. The following filed amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs: State of Oregon, Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon.
Plaintiffs were represented by Todd True and Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice and Dan Rohlf and Aaron Courtney of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center.
Additional Quotes and Contacts:
Pat Ford, Executive Director, Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, Contact: Vicki Paris (206) 286-4455, x. 19
“The best science has told us that the surest way to recover Snake River salmon is to remove the four lower Snake River dams. When are we going to heed that advice and start the job that will bring back the wild salmon and all that they represent?”
Jeff Curtis, NW Conservation Director, Trout Unlimited, (503) 827-5700 x11
“Thankfully the Court has recognized that this plan dodged the difficult decisions that must be faced head-on if we’re ever going to see real recovery of these fish. Now we can get on with the real work of making the region’s salmon economies, communities and natural heritage whole again while there’s still time to do so.”
Bill Sedivy, Executive Director, Idaho Rivers United, (208) 343-7481
“The 2000 plan claimed the government could fix the salmon problem without addressing the root cause — the four Lower Snake Dams. We thought all along that the strategy behind the plan was a bit like trying to treat cancer with aspirin. Fortunately, the judge saw it that way, too.”
Liz Hamilton, Executive Director, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, (503) 631-8859
“Given that these dams have wiped out an entire fishing economy, we find the Federal Attorney’s proclaimed satisfaction with current run levels incomprehensible. For the feds to claim that their only responsibility is to avoid slipping below the “threatened” bar, is just another slap in the face to struggling fishing communities.”
Rob Masonis, Regional Director, American Rivers, (206) 213-0330, x. 12
“The federal bureaucrats responsible for recovering Columbia and Snake River salmon have run out of places to hide. It is time for them to come forward with a real recovery plan that will achieve the goal agreed to by the four Northwest governors in 2000: restoration of salmon and steelhead to sustainable and harvestable levels. For Snake River fish, that goal, and compliance with federal law, cannot be met with the four lower Snake River dams in the river.”