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4/25/2008 Capital Press

Salmon win in this dam legal battle

It's a fact that some environmental groups won't be happy until every dam is removed from every salmon stream and river in the West.

Whether that's practical is, for them, not a concern.

They simply don't seem to be willing to accept any alternatives. For them, it's an all-or-nothing proposition.

That leaves government agencies, utilities and other interested groups such as Indian tribes to find practical ways to return the region's salmon runs to health without benefit of those environmental groups' help.

That's what makes so remarkable the recently announced agreement between the Indian tribes and the federal government for operating the Columbia River hydropower system. The deal calls for spending about $90 million a year for hatchery and habitat improvements during the next decade while leaving the dams in place.

This agreement is both practical and represents a huge step toward returning the fisheries to health.

Members of the region's Indian tribes laud the agreement.

"This is the best thing to happen to the salmon is a long time," Fidelia Andy, chair of the Fish and Wildlife Committee of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, said in a recent Capital Press story.

For too long, the need to rebuild western salmon runs has been volleyed between courtrooms and Congress. While the lawyers argued, the fate of the fish was locked in legal limbo. As a result, many of the efforts to protect the fish could best be described as too little, too late.

Now the tribes are working with the government in an all-out effort to make progress in this important area.

"When people move from courtroom adversaries to rebuilding partnerships that recognize co-management, then I think we're on the right track," said Ron Suppah of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon.

In the meantime, Earthjustice, which thrives on courtroom battles, is holding out for removing the four dams on the Snake River, no matter what the consequences are for the region's economy.

"While increased spill and flow and Snake River dam removal are not silver bullets, they are a necessary part of a larger plan," Earthjustice said in a press release quoting Bill Shake, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant regional director. "This deal defies decades of salmon science that say salmon recovery in the Columbia and Snake River Basin is not possible with habitat and hatchery programs alone."

While that's certainly his opinion and the opinion of Earthjustice, it is not the opinion of four Indian tribes and three federal agencies that agreed to this comprehensive effort to return the salmon runs to health.

The agreement is good news for the region's farmers, which have been threatened by the prospect of losing the low-cost electricity and water for irrigation that the dams provide. The river system is also an important mode of transportation for getting crops to market.

"We hope this agreement ends the unproductive debate on dam breaching and gets down to solving real, on-the-ground problems for fish," Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said in the Capital Press.

His comment is right on the mark. The more time and money that are devoted to lawyers and lawsuits, the less time and money goes to helping the salmon.

The recently announced agreements need to make it through a legal review next month, but the cooperative effort is in itself a giant leap forward for the tribes, the federal agencies and, most importantly, the salmon runs that have suffered for years while lawyers continued their efforts to torpedo the Snake River dams in court.

The legal war is not over, but this battle has been won. If the judge allows this comprehensive agreement to proceed, the salmon will be the ultimate winners.
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