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No Relief for Salmon in Bush Regimen

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Every step of the way, it seems, the Bush administration declares itself against nature. On environmental issues, as in most everything else, the message is clear: No accommodation is wanted, or necessary.

In the Bush world of nature, no right of a fish or animal species is apparently enough to cause discomfort to any citizen holding a deed to land anywhere in America. This must be what they mean by achieving an "ownership society." The more the land is owned by individuals, the more privatized, the less there is in commons, the less we have the right to even care what happens to any of the natural wonders of Indian country's remarkable landscape.

This season the pressure is again on the Pacific salmon. The "dry-out" of the salmon has begun in earnest, as the Bush administration has opted to drop protection from four fifths of protected rivers, judged crucial to the recovery of salmon and steelhead, from Southern California to the Canadian border.

Declaring that these are no longer critical for salmon and steelhead recovery, tens of thousands of miles of river have been set loose for change and exploitation in the broadest environmental policy reversal in recent history. Down to only 27,000 miles of river, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the federal agency assigned to handle salmon recovery. "A flip-flop on Salmon," the Idaho Statesman calls it.

The decision reverses what had been a crowning touch of the Clinton administration, when in 2000 NOAA Fisheries defined the comprehensive system of rivers and policy protection needed for salmon and steelhead recovery.

The approach to major change and mayhem is simply to shift the rule defining what constitutes critical habitat. Critical habitat is a legal definition to describe areas "essential" for the survival of threatened or endangered species. Eighty percent of rivers that had been considered essential to salmon and steelhead survival, according to the Endangered Species Act, now five years later, are apparently no longer considered critical. A free-for-all of projects is expected.

Federal officials speak of "carefully balancing the needs of threatened and endangered salmon against human demands for water, energy, timber and real estate along the Northwest's cold-flowing rivers." Last week, too, the administration finalized a decision that rejects the proposal to demolish the Snake River hydropower dams, as a way to help restore salmon runs. In this equation, as with so many of the recent changes on environmental protection, the environment loses.

Who got their way? The National Association of Home Builders, which sued after the 2000 designation, spearheaded the developers' drive. A federal court agreed and considered their economic loss more important than the needs of the fish. Now the federal agency is forced to scramble to please them - the rule change allows for exemptions for property owners in broad areas of the Northwest and California. Who lost, beside the salmon and their immediate natural relations? The American Indian tribes with treaty
rights to salmon and who depend on the fishery, both traditionally and commercially. Also, many small towns along Central Idaho's Salmon River. The fishing season is perhaps worth tens of millions of dollars a year for them.

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While the feds argue that the change will help them focus recovery efforts where they would do the most good, natural resource specialists warn that it will set back recovery, perhaps irreparably. To be fair, the agencies committed to expanding efforts to reduce predators that prey heavily on young salmon. They also promised to outfit the major dams with spillway weirs, which supposedly help young fish pass the dams beyond the sucking of the turbines and by transporting some 90 percent of the young salmon stocks past the dams by barge or truck.

Nevertheless, the science is clear that cleanliness, even pristineness of rivers, is critical to the salmon population's recovery, which is in itself indispensable for bears and eagles, which depend on a strong yearly salmon run. "The actions," according to the Oregonian, "signal far-reaching changes in federal enforcement of the Endangered Species Act." The reductions in critical habitat going into effect will impact 20 populations of Pacific salmon and steel-head. Patti Goldman, an environmental attorney in Seattle stressed that exempting lands covered by the Northwest Forest Plan from critical habitat would be a "disaster" for salmon.

The feds under Bush have very poor record on salmon issues.

There is not much credibility left to the administration on this one. According to Bush science, genetically similar - but less hardy - hatchery fish are as valuable as wild fish in recovering salmon and steelhead. Every study says different. On the decision to not remove the Snake River dams, which many assert will greatly recover the runs, the feds claimed that "man-made dams are simply part of the natural environment young fish must learn to navigate en route to the Pacific Ocean" (Idaho Statesman). Most scientists disagree with these types of claims, which only diminish the climate of study and care around species survival and recovery issues.

The move to destroy the salmon rivers protection initiative is part and parcel of an alarming strategy of negating three decades of U.S. environmental protection by the newly re elected White House. One main priority is to open up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. This plan was defeated in 2000 but the administration now has the votes for victory. It will propose the continuation of the nuclear power program, paralyzed by the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. A comprehensive review to limit the Clean Air Act is also promised. The act is credited with cutting air pollution nationally by more than half over the last 30 years. The Endangered Species Act, main line of defense against the logging of the U.S.'s remaining (and endangered) rain forest, is in the line of attack as is the whole National Environmental Policy Act, the one that mandates environmental impact studies of major developments before they proceed Reelected by an American population that certainly knew the stakes, Bush's post-environment politics claim a mandate to open the country up for grabs.

A grand movement is needed to question this direction for the country. On the salmon and other northwest fisheries, Indian leaders and professionals, such as Olney Patt Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Yakama and Umatilla tribes, see the federal government "turning its back on that [treaty] obligation." The feds are sacrificing the salmon for the sake of developers, say the tribes. The feds' plan focuses on what the tribes believe are failed techniques of salmon-barging and on new technology - removable spillway weirs - that are not yet proven for specific specie.

The Columbia River treaty fishing tribes are denouncing the federal plan as "a step backward." It dismisses their salmon-recovery efforts, they assert, and instead provides more power to the federal Columbia River power system. "As co-managers of the salmon resource, we believe this plan falls far short of its legal, biological and trust responsibility," Patt emphasized. "It takes the weight off the dams and hoists it firmly onto the backs of salmon-dependent communities."

Notably, two weeks ago, 250 fish biologists and other scientists petitioned President Bush to make stronger efforts to protect salmon and other fish and their habitats.

Community by community, it would appear that the fight for a livable and satisfying environment is entering a definitive phase.