Last week, for the third time in nearly a decade, Judge James Redden of the United States District Court in Portland, Ore., rejected as inadequate a federal plan claiming to save imperiled salmon species in the Columbia River basin. These fish have been listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act since the early 1990s, their once-remarkable annual runs reduced to a trickle by habitat destruction and by the hydroelectric dams that impede their passage to the sea.
Three different administrations have offered survival plans. All three have been found wanting. Judge Redden, who has shown a great deal of patience and sagacity on this issue, tossed out a Clinton administration plan as too vague and a plan from the administration of George W. Bush as essentially illegal. The law requires the recovery of a species; the Bush plan promised little more than allowing the fish to go extinct at a slower rate.
The Obama administration added improvements, including lofty promises to restore spawning streams and estuaries. Not enough, Judge Redden said, noting that the plans did not extend beyond 2013 and, in any case, depended on Congressional appropriations that may or may not occur. He told the government to return with a more plausible and aggressive scheme in three years. Significantly, he left all recovery options on the table, including breaching four dams on the lower Snake River, an idea we have long supported.
It's time now for the stakeholders in this dispute to sit down at the same table, something they have never done. They include the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Bonneville Power Administration, two federal agencies that have offered only incremental steps toward fish recovery. They also include environmental groups, fishing and farming interests, Indian tribes and two state governments with differing views, Oregon favoring more aggressive actions than Washington.
Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the fisheries service, should convene such a group, with White House backing, to reconcile differences and devise an acceptable plan. Otherwise, it's back to the legal wars, which benefit no one, least of all the fish.