'A historic moment for Northwest salmon'

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Judge asks federal government for progress plan

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Students are familiar with teachers enforcing strict
deadlines for projects, not to mention establishing intermediary due dates
to make sure work is proceeding as intended. But when U.S. District Judge
James Redden put forth a similar calendar for federal agencies charged with
bringing back Columbia River salmon, bureaucrats bristled.

An Oregonian editorial -- which included a photograph of the gray-haired
judge looking through glasses under a furrowed brow, reminiscent of the
Columbia waters in a fierce wind -- called the Redden decision "a historic
moment for Northwest salmon."

Yet, under the court mandate to write a plan that remedies five key faults
within one year -- instead of the two years that the agencies wanted -- and
to deliver quarterly progress reports to the judge every three months, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries
Service objected. Instead, the fisheries service that regulates salmon
protection argued that "inject[ing] the court into the deliberate process
of the agencies" is inappropriate.

For his part, Redden has ruled on three failed salmon plans over the last
12 years. All the while, the runs have continued to slip. His frustration
with the lack of federal agency progress, and likely with President Bush's
2003 pledge that selected Columbia-Snake River dams would not be removed,
showed in Redden's not very thinly veiled remark. "Speeching on the dams
will not avoid breaching the dams," the judge wrote. "Cooperation and
assistance may."

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the Portland group that
represents tribal interests on the river, is not opposed to breaching the
dams, of course; but like Redden, CRITFC's current concern is that federal
agencies simply discharge their duties under the Endangered Species Act
lawfully.

Since Congress passed the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act in
1980, federal taxpayers and Northwest power ratepayers have spent billions
of dollars trying to recover salmon in the Columbia Basin. But, as the
Oregonian editorial board wrote, "the status quo still dominates ... Every
slight uptick in salmon numbers, no matter how temporary, is greeted by
pressure to hold back more water for power production or irrigation, or to
increase fishing."

Twelve species of salmon in the Columbia are listed under the ESA and
another is a proposed addition to the roster. More, four of the salmon runs
are bordering on extinction. Redden's resounding point is that business as
usual is no longer acceptable. "We are all aware of the demands of other
users of the resources of the Columbia River and Snake River," read the
judge's opinion, "but we need to be far more aware of the needs to the
endangered and threatened species."

NOAA Fisheries Service and other agencies in its camp counter that they
have worked with fisheries' interests by spilling water over the dams,
trucking and barging fish around the gauntlet of concrete barriers, and
screening turbines to keep young fish trying to reach the ocean out of the
sheer forces of the dams' internal workings.

Bonneville Power Administration, in particular, the for-profit federal
agency in charge of marketing the river's power, has been careful to note
that rates will go up for consumers if BPA and NOAA Fisheries Service meet
what they consider unreasonable demands of the tribes and others who want
to see more of the river's water devoted to fish. What is generally omitted
from the discussion, though, is that Northwest ratepayers currently enjoy
the cheapest electric prices in the nation.

For that reason and a host of others, Redden's not buying the argument any
longer. "The government's inaction appears to some parties to be a strategy
intended to avoid making hard choices and offending those who favor the
status quo," he wrote. "Without real action from the action agencies, the
result will be the loss of the wild salmon."

Federal attorneys don't have to follow Redden's order and have 60 days to
appeal. Whether they will most likely depends on the support they think
they have in Congress. There, efforts to water down the ESA as it is
rewritten later this year have already emerged from the Republican
constituency. Given the current climate inside the Beltway, where both the
Bush administration and its congressional cronies are trying to shore up a
sinking ship, perhaps those in the Northwest's hinterland will think it in
their best interests to comply with the Redden decision.

The Oregonian certainly hopes so. "The right response," wrote the editors,
"is to accept the judge's challenge, and get to work on a more clear-eyed
and sincere plan to recover Northwest salmon."