Editor’s Notebook: Region Still Searching For That Sweet Spot Of Coordinating, Connecting Salmon Recovery Efforts

Is there a species anywhere in the United States that crosses and involves more governmental jurisdictions than Columbia River basin salmonids?

No animal that I know of has spawned a more complex and vast decision-making structure for determining recovery actions and funding.

The closest creature I could conjure was the spotted owl, an ESA listing that led to the Northwest Forest Plan in the 1990s.

President Bill Clinton ordered 10 federal agencies to work together with scientists on a region wide forest plan that would be “scientifically sound, ecologically credible, and legally responsible.” There was a “timber czar” to coordinate the effort. (This even led to Northwest governors at the time discussing the need for a “salmon czar” in the immediate wake of the first basin salmon listings under the Endangered Species Act.)

The forest plan covered millions of acres within western Oregon and Washington as well as a small part of northern California. A science advisory team — the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team – was to identify management alternatives that would meet the requirements of laws and regulations, including the Endangered Species Act.

That scale of natural resource coordination, successful or otherwise, came to mind in watching some developments in basin salmon recovery just the past week.

Late last week, NOAA Fisheries’ Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force released its Phase I report that included quite ambitious goals – including a target of 3.6 million naturally produced salmon and steelhead in the next 50 to 100 years. That compares with about 400,000 naturally produced fish today.

“Getting to recovery will require creative, bold, and effective actions at multiple levels; it will also demand attention to interdependent legal, regulatory, ecological, social, cultural, and economic elements,” said the report.

The report noted the “lack of common goals in multiple overlapping federal, state, and tribal recovery and management plans and that effective recovery processes need to include a shared regional definition of success.”

The task Force has 28 members representing tribes, states and diverse stakeholders and aims for “an all-inclusive region-wide effort to connect various salmon recovery efforts.”

In other words, better coordination.

Also last week, another coordination effort, so to speak, was launched in Idaho. Gov. Brad Little’s “Salmon Workgroup” met for the first time in an effort to develop an “effective salmon and steelhead policy for Idaho …”

Little is hoping this stakeholder group can collaboratively develop a unified policy recommendation. Yet, right out the gate, Little took dam breaching off the table. “I remain unconvinced at this time that breaching dams will recover salmon in Idaho,” Little said. “In order to keep this diverse of stakeholders (together), we will put polarizing issues aside and focus on pragmatic achievable solutions.”

Removing discussion of a key issue for some stakeholders seems problematic when urging collaboration. It will be interesting to see if the governor’s plan will include new ideas beyond the many things Idaho is already doing.

Each state, of course, formal workgroup or not, has its own policies toward basin salmon recovery, but it doesn’t take long to recognize the need for regional coordination in implementing an effective basin salmon recovery plan.

Speaking of states, just this week, in another corner of basin salmon recovery, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council voted to release proposed amendments to the new Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program due by December. The amendments will be posted in the coming days on the Council website.

This is the place where the Northwest states are supposed to have their say in regional salmon recovery.  The Council, with two members from each state, appointed by governors – is charged with building a regional fish and wildlife program that guides nearly $300 million in annual Bonneville Power Administration project funding.

And there’s more. Soon, Washington State, with new funding in hand from the Legislature, will launch a stakeholder process to consider the impacts of removal of the four Lower Snake River dams. The move is part of an effort to increase the food supply – salmon – for struggling orcas in Puget Sound.

Yet, these processes – the Columbia Basin Partnership, Idaho’s Salmon Workgroup, the Council Fish and Wildlife Program, the Washington stakeholder panel — are really just the tip of the iceberg, the part that shows above the water.

All must somehow mesh at some point with the main policy driver – the new Environmental Impact Statement and Biological Opinion federal agencies are now preparing for listed basin salmon and steelhead, due late 2020.

And all policies, plans, documents and decisions must take into account tribal treaty rights and U.S. vs. Oregon harvest decisions.

So back to that salmon czar thing. In 1993, seeing that the Forest Plan approach might be beneficial to basin salmon recovery, the Northwest governors – Cecil Andrus of Idaho, Barbara Roberts of Oregon, Marc Racicot of Montana, and Mike Lowry of Washington State, urged President Clinton to appoint a salmon czar to coordinate recovery efforts.

Who knows what would have happened if that request had been granted? But here we are nearly 30 years later still looking, as the Columbia Basin Partnership says, for the best way to “connect various salmon recovery efforts.”

—Bill Crampton, [email protected], 541-312-8860

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