Op-ed by Steven Hawley, August 21st, 2010
In Barack Obama's inspiring inaugural address, he promised to restore "science to its rightful place." Again in April 2009, before the National Academy of Sciences, Obama announced a new executive order with what he called a "clear message: the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over."
Around the Pacific Northwest, this vow was cause for cautious optimism. The Bush administration had politicized the science of salmon recovery, pressuring federal scientists to ignore or hide dam-driven effects on 13 populations of Columbia and Snake River salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. That the new president was apparently turning the page on sketchy science gave many beleaguered salmon advocates hope.
Unfortunately, that "clear message" hasn't gotten through, and ideology, not science, is still leading decisions on Northwest salmon. As reported in the Los Angeles Times last month, federal fisheries biologists are still being pressured about their findings on the impacts of dams on salmon.
At the same time the president issued his executive order, his administration began a six-month review of an inherited Bush plan for endangered Columbia and Snake River salmon. In September came an unpleasant surprise: The administration embraced the Bush salmon plan, and Jane Lubchenco, the new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (and formerly of Oregon State University), said she stood behind its science "100 percent."
The Western Division of the American Fisheries Society was less enthusiastic. This consortium of fisheries scientists reviewed the decision to embrace the Bush plan, found it "to be inadequate for ensuring the protection of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin," and concluded it did not consistently use the best available science.
What led Lubchenco, a renowned marine ecologist, to embrace the Bush salmon plan's shoddy science? At the time I was finishing a book on Columbia Basin salmon. I filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents during that six-month review of the Bush plan. Getting Obama's Commerce Department, of which NOAA is a part, to follow the rule of FOIA law has been as arduous a task as pulling chinook teeth. It took a lawsuit to get them to cough up even a heavily redacted record. But here's what the record showed:
As the administration began its scrutiny of the Bush biological opinion -- known as a bi-op -- in April 2009, the offices of Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell went into action, connecting with Commerce Secretary (and former Washington governor) Gary Locke to limit the review. Those offices drew up an itinerary for Lubchenco's salmon fact-finding trip to the Northwest in May 2009. The senators recommended she limit discussions to issues that supported the Bush salmon plan, and warned her to be "discreet," "avoid open public meetings" and meet only with government officials (the defendants in the bi-op case) but not fishermen, conservation groups or the public at large. Commerce Department officials told the Senate offices that they had "[h]eard [the Senator's] concerns loud and clear." NOAA developed a schedule for Lubchenco's trip "with which [the Senators would be] comfortable." The trip as it occurred mirrored the trip suggested by the senators' offices.
In the meantime, the state of Washington signed on with federal defendants in the bi-op case, which came with a $43 million check from the Bonneville Power Administration earmarked for estuary work in the lower Columbia. Salmon may yet learn to swim on the Washington side of a half-improved estuary. In the meantime, the Department of Justice has made some inquiries into just what was said last summer at a meeting between Secretary Locke, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and some well-connnected agribusiness lobbyists when they met in Washington, D.C.
As journalists were reminded last month with the Shirley Sherrod fiasco, context is everything. The Washington delegation certainly deserves a chance to tell the whole story. But where salmon are concerned, the public isn't being misled by a clever conservative video editor. The incomplete story here comes courtesy of Obama's Commerce Department.
The full administrative record accounting for the scientific process behind the 2009 bi-op will be delivered to the court this month. It would be enlightening and informative to read just what Sens. Murray and Cantwell and Secretary Locke told Jane Lubchenco in meetings in D.C. in May and June 2009. Or how Lubchenco directed a team of scientists reviewing the bi-op in July of that year. Or what those scientists, who were asked to sign confidentiality agreements, said about this "new" plan. But I'd bet a senator's salary that those items, and a lot other information providing some much-needed context, won't be found there.
Steven Hawley is a writer in Hood River.