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Collision of economies and cultures on the Columbia

PORTLAND, Ore. - "JUDGE RIPS FEDERAL SALON PLAN" ran the Oregonian
headlines in late May after federal District Court Judge James A. Redden
held that the Bush administration's plan to bring Columbia River salmon
back was "legally flawed." Indeed, it's the third time in 12 years the
court has put thumbs down to pallid efforts on the part of the
powers-that-be. Columbia River tribes, of course, hailed the ruling.

Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Rebecca A. Miles said: "We believe that the court
decision gives the Columbia Basin's sovereigns a tremendous opportunity to
take the necessary actions to ensure that salmon are recovered to healthy,
harvestable levels. As we've been saying for years, the dams on the
Columbia and Snake rivers have had a devastating effect on salmon, our
health, and our way of life."

Perhaps nowhere else in the nation have conflicts between managing
ecologies for sustainability and milking natural resources for market
profits come into as high a relief as they have in the Columbia River
Basin. Billions of federal tax dollars have been funneled into the dream of
saving the Columbia's salmon, making the effort, which currently hovers
around $600 million annually, the nation's single largest wildlife recovery
program.

Taking on water dynamics that make kayakers queasy, salmon swim hundreds
and thousands of miles on their migratory cycles, only to return to the
gravels in which they were spawned to give themselves up for the next
generation. Yes, there's much to recommend these fish; much to explain why
Pacific Northwesterners - and Americans across the continent who help pay
the bill - cling to the dream of saving the fish.

Once Redden's decision came down, the Nez Perce in tandem with other
Columbia River tribes and environmental and fishing groups filed a suit
requiring hydro operators to make more water available for the fish.
According to Olney Patt Jr., executive director of the Columbia River
Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, providing adequate flows for salmon is
particularly critical this year given the region's winter drought for which
May rains provided only partial compensation.

"We now have the immediate task of securing protections for this summer's
migration," Patt said. "This is still a low-flow year and protecting the
many summer and fall juvenile migrants is important for any long-term
rebuilding effort."

Patt's remark reflects the heart of the disagreement. The tribes and their
allies that want the river managed for sustainability, seek fish runs that
are not simply maintained a hair's breadth away from extinction. Dependent
on the salmon for sustenance, ceremonies and commerce, the tribes want the
same thing Congress did in 1980 when it passed the Northwest Electric Power
Planning and Conservation Act - healthy, harvestable numbers of salmon.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, the
federal agency that submitted the federal river operations plan, is
considering an appeal to Redden's ruling; and NOAA Fisheries regional
administrator Bob Lohn called the new suit brought by the tribes and
cooperating interest groups "risky and speculative."

Indeed, although NOAA Fisheries is theoretically charged with protecting
the fishery by upholding the Endangered Species Act, the federal agency has
found itself consistently at odds with the Columbia River tribes and
environmentalists.

Economics, of course, is at the heart of the issue. And Bonneville Power
Adminstration (BPA) - the for-profit federal agency that markets power
generated by the dams on the Columbia - stands squarely in the firing line.
BPA Administrator Steve Wright claimed his agency would lose $100 million
in revenue. In turn, losses would be passed on to consumers in the form of
higher rates, argued utility spokesmen.

"Federal and state governments, tribes and private landowners are making
amazing efforts to recover fish, and all of that will continue," said Scott
Corwin, vice president of marketing and public affairs for Pacific
Northwest Generating Cooperative (PNGC) Power.

Corwin is on record as consistently opposing flows for salmon that the
tribes and courts have time and again said are necessary to truly save the
runs.

Part of the hue and cry stems from a recent, hopeful spike in the numbers
of returning salmon. From lackluster levels numbering from almost
nonexistent to 100,000, the spring Chinook salmon population returning to
the mid-Columbia River rose to 400,000 as the new millennium kicked into
gear. From that high point, though, it's been all downhill, with last
year's return well below the 100,000 mark.

This "one step forward and two back," though, leaves the tribes undeterred.
Never mind that their challenges under the current administration seem as
formidable as churning white water must to the salmon. Or that at times,
the roar of opposition sounds the way the old fishery at Celilo Falls used
to and all but drowns out meaningful dialogue.

Like the salmon, the tribes have been on the river from the beginning,
consider the Columbia home, and are in it for the long haul.