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
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
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
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
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
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
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.