February 22, 2009
At the end of this century, will the Pacific Northwest's salmon still be an icon? Or will the chinooks, silvers and other migrating fish of the great runs be a mere memory?
It's up to us.
The start of President Barack Obama's administration is a hopeful time for environmental policy, nationally and in this region. Obama will bring better judgment to such Northwest issues as forests, roadless areas and energy. But even with sustained, widespread progress on the environment generally, saving salmon will require a wide variety of aggressive measures.
Ideas for urban growth controls and dam removals might even be considered radical. But after eight years of an administration with a stunted vision for the health of the nation's environment, the need for bolder salmon measures is at a peak, all along the Pacific Coast.
Neither the 20th century nor the last half of the 19th was kind to salmon runs. The Pacific salmon are far healthier than Atlantic Coast runs, but overfishing, degradation of habitat and the building of the Columbia River system dams all helped devastate the salmon and the human and natural ecosystems.
As an excellent report in Oregon State University's Terra magazine puts it, salmon can rebound if the public and policymakers are willing to take strong enough measures. But, U.S. Geological Service scientist Carl Schreck told Terra, "We need to get going now. There isn't a lot of time to waste."
We think one starting point for the Obama administration is an honest assessment of whether to tear down four Snake River dams. The Bush administration turned science, the law and facts on their heads to avoid even considering removal of the dams. U.S. District Judge James Redden, who has attacked unscientific federal decisions, will hold a hearing next month on a federal salmon plan that could lead to him assuming significant control over dam operations.
Recreation and fishing business leaders are writing to Obama echoing Save Our Wild Salmon's calls for bringing together stakeholders, including farmers and businesses, to consider the best scientific and economic information on the dams. The business leaders write, "A comprehensive, commonsense salmon recovery effort that replaces the lower Snake River dams with cost-effective, modern alternatives will create family-wage jobs, restore salmon and recreation, expand clean energy opportunities, and protect our outdoor way of life. With science leading the way, the hope of real salmon abundance ... can be realized." Save Our Wild Salmon has advanced another smart idea that would help Puget Sound: appointing a White House Council on Environmental Quality director of salmon.
Oregon State and an Environmental Protection Agency lab have taken leading roles in the Salmon 2100 Project. The study suggested that population growth and development will contribute to further reductions in salmon numbers along the Pacific Coast this century. Even so, the study concluded, society could put in enough environmental protections to save salmon.
Schreck told Terra, "We can plan for growth, make wise resource allocations, handle water and sewage requirements and limit our urban footprint." The fate of salmon depends on whether humans can make better informed, wiser choices this century than over the past 150 years.