While President Bush is busy raising funds in the Northwest, conservationists are busy taking him to task for failing to keep the promises he made the last time he was in town. On the campaign trail, Bush said, "Washington faces important challenges, and there's no greater challenge than to save salmon... . For all of us, those fish are a wonder of nature and they must be preserved." Too bad his administration's policies don't match Bush's concern for the salmon population.
The Bush administration cannot use the spike in salmon runs in recent years as proof their policies are working -- as their campaign rhetoric seems to imply. Favorable ocean conditions, not the Bush administration's salmon recovery policies, explain the high salmon returns in the Columbia and Snake rivers over the past several years. The majority of this year's returning salmon are not wild fish -- they were raised in hatcheries.
Far from contributing to healthy salmon populations, the administration's policies actually threaten wild salmon and the local economies that depend on them. The scientific evidence reveals clearly that the increase in salmon returns is due primarily to a cyclical change in ocean conditions. This change is known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation -- a pattern that increases survival rates for most species of salmon during their years at sea.
Unfortunately, both state and federal scientists say that wild salmon and steelhead are still very much at risk. Further, misguided administration policies will only accelerate the decline of wild salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers when the notoriously cyclical ocean conditions take a turn for the worse. The region continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on various measures without any clear sense of whether they will be effective.
Breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River would be the single most effective way to bring back wild salmon. In light of the administration's failure to deliver a valid recovery plan that keeps those dams in place, dam removal planning should commence now so that action can be taken soon if the federal government again fails to demonstrate that salmon can be protected with the lower Snake River dams in place.
In its 2002 study, the RAND corporation determined that the lower Snake River dams could be removed without harming the Northwest's economy. Rather than dismissing this salmon recovery action out of hand, the Bush administration should take an honest look at the costs and benefits of lower Snake River dam removal.
But instead of working toward constructive solutions to improve river health while protecting local economies, the Bush administration has generally ignored science, instead formulating its policies to benefit a handful of special interests. The fish kill in the Klamath Basin illustrates the tragic consequences of the biases of this administration. Earlier this summer, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bush adviser Karl Rove pushed the president's political agenda at a 2002 meeting where Bureau of Reclamation managers were deciding how to distribute Klamath River water. The decision to make full water deliveries to farmers -- at the expense of river and wildlife health -- was followed by the largest fish kill in U.S. history. The state of California, among others, said the 33,000 salmon died at least in part because of low river flows. One NOAA Fisheries biologist who worked on the Klamath salmon plan has sought whistleblower protection. This summer, conditions in the Klamath are ripe for another fish kill.
Salmon in the Northwest are also threatened by the Bush administration's proposed roll backs of Clean Water Act protections. The mining, logging and development industries have an interest in relaxing these protections. If the administration eliminates clean water protections for wetlands and small streams, the effects will be devastating not only for salmon and other wildlife, but also for water quality and public health throughout the Northwest. Removing protections from small streams undermines protection throughout the watershed. Whatever is dumped in these smaller streams will eventually reach our larger streams and rivers.
Finally, the administration's forest policy proposals threaten salmon and water quality. The administration is seeking to gut salmon protection rules in the Northwest Forest Plan. The so-called Healthy Forests Initiative will affect salmon habitat by allowing extensive logging through national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands in the name of forest fire prevention.
A healthy Northwest economy depends on healthy salmon. President Bush should commit his administration to doing everything in its power to restore abundant harvestable wild salmon. Absent a credible alternative, this must include removing the four lower Snake River dams. On this point, conservationists and the commercial and sportfishing industries agree.
Rebecca Wodder is president of American Rivers, a non-proft conservation organization.