December 20, 2012
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, not typically given to hyperbole, issued a call in September decrying failures in "the war to save salmon." The problem with the word war is that it connotes immediacy and, even in the long term, daily calamity. But a war over salmon?
How about attention fatigue?
The region has spent more than $10 billion over the past two decades struggling to rebuild wild runs of the once-profuse Northwest fish. Along the way, U.S. District Court in Portland has four times rejected as inadequate the federal government's plan to save our salmon despite mandates to do so under the sweeping Endangered Species Act.
Yet here we are, anticipating from a new presiding judge in 2013 another ruling on whether the correct fish-saving measures are being taken. That's while some wild runs remain at risk of extinction and the Bonneville Power Administration <http://www.bpa.gov/Pages/home.aspx>; annually forks over hundreds of millions of dollars in ratepayer money to underwrite habitat restoration projects and bolster water flows through the Columbia Basin's hydroelectric system, the engine of modern life and commerce hereabouts.
If it isn't war, it is one fight with no apparent end in sight. The weapons are legal briefs, and among the combatants are biologists who dispute whether a wild fish differs from a hatchery fish and throw into question the effectiveness of remedies. Throughout, core strengths of Pacific Northwest culture -- a frothy mix of rural and urban interests, riverfront industries and irrigation-dependent farms, tribal values and federal management of Columbia River dams -- often collide, with wreckage landing in court. Lost in the many ecologic, political, cultural and economic benefits assigned to salmon is the amount of work their survival has meant to lawyers.
Kitzhaber's call was heard widely and apparently by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration <http://www.noaa.gov/>; , headed by former Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco. NOAA, long involved in the fight to save salmon, this month announced it will underwrite a survey of the region's diverse interests in salmon with an eye to helping Northwest leaders find a productive way forward. Up to 200 interviews will be conducted across four states by neutral representatives from the Oregon Consensus program at Portland State University and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center in Washington state.
But there will be no quick solutions on a plate. NOAA's first goal, according to Deputy Regional Administrator Barry Thom, will be to establish by mid-2013 whether it's even possible to structure a regionwide conversation that could find enough common purpose to end the fight. If so, promising approaches will be outlined.
We're weary of any next discussion rooted in belief. The fish made it plain in their decline that modern life and development brought them within sight of doom before an historic effort was mounted to save them. But we're all for any discussion that can have as an outcome fewer lawsuits, fewer collisions of fish-saving strategies, fewer derailments in policy-setting. And we're all for Kitzhaber's argument that changes ahead in energy production -- from renewables to plain old conservation efforts -- could increase flexibility in dam operations for the benefit of fish.
The salmon are worth saving. But so many diverse constituents in the region will need to get on the same page to do so. We look to NOAA and Kitzhaber to bring what it takes to end a fight that, in taking so much money and so much time, threatens the recovery effort itself.