Obama officials come to NW to learn salmon issues

By Jeff Barnard
Grants Pass, Oregon (AP) 6-09

Two top members of President Obama's environmental team were in the Northwest during late May but pointedly not speaking about the tense conflict between salmon and hydroelectric dams in the Columbia Basin.

NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco and White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley attended closed-doors sessions in Portland with scientists, government officials and Indian tribes, and were scheduled on to tour one of the lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington that conservationists and some Indian tribes want removed to restore endangered salmon.

"The purpose of this trip here is to listen and learn," Lubchenco spokesman Justin Kenney said from North Carolina.

Sport and commercial fishermen were shut out of the meetings.

"More and more boats are having to stay docked because we have lost so many family wage fishing jobs," Steve Fick, a commercial fisherman and fish processor from Astoria, said in a statement.

Lubchenco and Sutley came with specific questions to help the Obama administration establish its position on the long-running litigation over how to run the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers that are the region's energy backbone.


Sent out to parties to the talks, the administration's questions closely mirror those raised by U.S. District Judge James Redden in a letter during May to lawyers for all sides as he moves closer to a decision on whether the Bush administration's 2008 plan for balancing salmon against dams - known as a biological opinion - violates the Endangered Species Act. Considerations include:

- Is the standard for success embraced by the Bush administration appropriate?

- Does the plan adequately take into account changes to rivers and the ocean expected under global warming?

- Are habitat improvements in tributaries and estuaries - the backbone of the plan - enough to overcome the damage caused by the dams?

- What other steps could be taken to make dam operations less harmful to salmon.

- Are government agencies doing enough to overcome problems caused by fishing and hatcheries?

- What steps should be taken if this plan fails?

That last question confronts the prospect of breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington, which provide barge access to farms and mills in Idaho, as well as enough electricity to power Seattle, but are blamed for sending Snake River salmon populations into a tailspin.

President George W. Bush had stood at Ice Harbor Dam and declared none would be breached on his watch, drawing cheers from farmers, barge operators and industrial users of cheap hydroelectric power. The biological opinion that followed dropped earlier consideration of dam breaching, and focused on habitat improvements over changes in dam operations to save salmon from extinction.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, the only Northwest governor still signed on to a lawsuit challenging the 2008 biological opinion, welcomed the Obama administration's decision to take a new look at the science.

"We believe that a re-look at the science that underpins the 2008 biological opinion is exactly the right thing to do, because it goes to the heart of Oregon's concerns about the viability and defensibility of this biological opinion," said Mike Carrier, Kulongoski's natural resources adviser.

Columbia Basin treaty tribes - all but one of which has embraced the biological opinion in return for salmon restoration funding - focused their comments on broader salmon issues, said Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission spokesman Charles Hudson.

Hudson said they wanted to establish a "sound working relationship" with the Obama administration.