How not to save salmon

Next week, the federal government is expected to officially list the Puget Sound chinook under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This marks a spread of the areas in which salmon are considered endangered, from the Columbia and Snake river systems to the populated areas of Western Washington.

Various species of salmon have also been listed in the past year in Oregon and Northern California. In combination, the message is clear: Salmon, a cherished way of life in the Pacific Northwest for millennia, are dying. And we're killing them.

The question of how to stop this process (let alone reverse it) is politically nasty, because so many parties and competing interests are involved. Water-quality advocates, sport and commercial fishing interests, environmentalists, agriculture, and timber interests all have a special stake in the process. Local, state, and federal regulators (along with Native American tribes that have treaty rights) must all be satisfied.

Into this mess, Gov. Gary Locke has proposed the state's plan to save salmon. Locke's plan is a cop-out that won't appease federal regulators. It's largely voluntary, has few plans for compliance, and relies on some breathtaking (and irrelevant) corporate welfare.

Locke's plan, as proposed to the legislature, is twofold: there's a water bill (SB 5289, HB 1314) and a timber bill (SB 5896, HB 2091). Both are contested and have gone through multiple revisions, and both need not just the votes but also money in the budget to come to fruition.

Aluminum foils

The water bill is, from an environmental perspective, not a cure-all, but a small step in the right direction. It would encourage water conservation and set stream flows. More controversial provisions to conserve agricultural water use, expand enforcement of water laws, and limit the exemptions on small wells (exemptions exploited by developers who use strings of small wells to avoid the regulations affecting larger ones) have already been removed.

It sounds harmless enough—in order to protect fish, one has to give them decent water to live in, and that's inevitably going to change the way humans use water. There is, however, quite a bit of opposition. It comes largely from east of the Cascades, where water is scarcer. Current water laws have served this dry but agriculturally rich region quite well, and farmers don't want to see them changed. Also fearing change are developers, both in the Puget Sound region and southwest Washington. Between ag and developers, any salmon solution left to the political (as opposed to scientific) arena is bound to be compromised.

In particular, science says that in order to save salmon you have to remove dams. That threatens not just agriculture but big hydroelectric users. That means aluminum, an industry that has gotten rich off of corporate welfare for decades through subsidized electric rates provided by the Columbia Basin's network of dams. Aluminum, of course, also means Boeing. And it means the advocacy of Sen. Slade Gorton, up for reelection in 2000. Locke said recently in Pasco that he was "skeptical" about dam removal—that, too, was politics speaking, not science.

Salmon advocates want to see only four (out of more than 120) Columbia/Snake dams removed, so that the fish have a better chance of survival. But even four dams is unthinkable to some. Gorton's pledge to allow removal of the Olympic Peninsula's Elwha dam only if the future of every one of the Columbia's dams is rendered sacrosanct is a measure of how entrenched the "dam lobby" is.

Watch out! Timber!!

The water bill is toothless but relatively benign compared to Locke's timber legislation. This is, essentially, a timber industry bill that was tacked onto the salmon package to make it more palatable. It specifically states, under the intent section, that it will protect salmon habitat "to the maximum . . . possible consistent with maintaining commercial forest management as an economically viable use of lands." In other words, if it's a choice between salmon and clearcutting, moonscapes win.

As part of this complete non-concession, in exchange for allowing, on state-controlled lands, an average 50-foot buffer zone around streams (the federal standard is a minimum of 200 and up to 400 feet), big timber would, among other things, get: an estimated $2 billion; 20 percent tax cuts; exemption from liabilities; and exemption from the limitations of the Endangered Species Act for the next 50 years.

This is an amazing bit of corporate welfare.

Controlling destructive forest practices is critical to salmon's survival. Knowing that it's facing federal crackdowns, timber is reacting by doing an end run around the state's political process, and it's using Gary Locke to do it. The timber bill is unnecessary; it acts by removing the authority over buffers from the Forest Practices Board, a state agency that would be much more likely to follow the standards suggested by science (if not common sense). The board also allows public input; Locke's timber bill does not.

The result is a macabre game of chicken, with the lives of salmon, the future of development in Western Washington, and the rates of commercial and private electric users (that's you) in the balance. If the state doesn't produce a plan that satisfies federal regulators, the federal response will be much more draconian for all concerned. Even worse, more time will pass, and for salmon that means being pushed even closer to the brink.

Gary Locke's response, especially with the timber bill, has been a conscious decision to save salmon by the most politically expedient way possible. This sort of craven appeasement to salmon's most feared predators is exactly why, next week, Puget Sound chinook—and, sooner or later, many of their cousins—will officially be facing extinction.

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