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Save Our Wild Salmon

NOAA given until 2013 to come up with detailed plan

By Eric Barker of the Tribune The Lewiston Tribune

lewiston.tribuneIn the wake of their third straight legal victory, salmon advocates are calling for the federal government to take a hard look at dam breaching as a vehicle toward Snake River salmon recovery.

"We think that is a starting point of what the Obama administration should do; they should commit to take a close and in-depth look and to us that means scientific, economic and engineering," said Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition in Boise.

Although the coalition made up of conservation and fishing organizations has worked hard to keep dam removal as a viable option in the public debate over salmon recovery, the government has not seriously weighed the pros and cons of breaching since it was dismissed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study that wrapped in 2001. Instead the corps backed a combination of habitat improvement projects and technological fixes to the dams. That strategy was endorsed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency in charge of salmon recovery.

Two weeks ago federal Judge James Redden of Portland, Ore., ruled the details of a 2008 plan using that strategy remain too ill-defined and uncertain to pass muster with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. He is allowing the plan and its habitat-improvement measures to stay in place through 2013 but wants NOAA Fisheries to come up with a more detailed plan by 2014.

Although Redden did not say a more defined plan relying solely on the same strategy would fail, he strongly suggested it would and ordered the government to consider "more aggressive" actions like dam breaching and reservoir draw down.

It is unclear if the NOAA Fisheries will simply try to fix the plan, known as a biological opinion, by providing more details on future habitat projects and the fish survival benefits that can be expected from them or if it will look for a new strategy. Barry Thom, deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries at Portland, said officials have not decided how the plan will be fixed but said he was encouraged Redden is allowing it to stay in place for the next two years.

"I think the judge recognized it does have beneficial effects moving forward. I think that is definitely a positive from our standpoint but we are disappointed the judge didn't just come out and agree with all of our arguments."

He noted by the end of 2013 the plan will have been in place for six of the 10 years it was designed to cover and there will be pressure to prove it is working.

"The federal government will need to tighten the certainty behind the benefits and how the benefits accrue to the fish," he said.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is calling for a regional discussion that seeks a new path forward. Oregon joined with the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition and the Nez Perce Tribe to challenge the government's 2008 salmon and dams plan.

Brett Brownscombe, one of Kitzhaber's natural resources policy advisers, said the talks should involve not only the plaintiffs and defendants in the case but other regional interests.

"He (Kitzhaber) wants to play a meaningful role in advancing a new way forward," Brownscombe said. "That is going to start with having conversations with relevant stakeholders in the region."

Brownscombe said he doesn't expect that conversation to start with breaching.

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