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Save Our Wild Salmon


By Bill Monroe

Now it's personal.

In their new-found search for job security amid an adminis

tration seemingly bent on destruction of the natural world, federal budgeters again threaten salmon and habitat recovery. They've axed the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund for 2019, the second consecutive attempt to kill the main source of funding to resurrect a Northwest icon.

Budget-blasting is a common ploy. The mantra: Let's just erase a bunch of funds and see if we can get away with it. I first watched it in action decades ago, as an annual saber brandished by Republican administrations (and occasionally snuck in by Democratic wonks, too) to strip Columbia River hatchery mitigation money. States, lobbyists, organizations and outraged citizens are forced to sing for their suppers in a kind of government-by-consternation.

This time, however, it hits closer to home.

Full disclosure: Since my retirement from full-time writing about the outdoors for The Oregonian, I've accepted a seat on the Clackamas River Basin Council. I currently have the honor of serving as chairman of this group of diverse stakeholders and dedicated staff. We all care deeply about this unique river, which is born in the wilderness and gives life to thousands of organisms between the snow and your faucet.

I don't write much about it since it would be a conflict. But I get mad as, well, the dickens when I see something so blatantly wrong.

The Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, created by Congress in 2000 and administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's regional fisheries division, comprises 27 percent of the annual budget of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. The watershed enhancement board was created in 2002 during the Kitzhaber administration to distribute lottery dollars and other funding to the state's 95 watershed councils.

Two-thirds of these watersheds shelter salmon and steelhead runs, thus qualifying for grants from the recovery fund's annual $13 to $15 million contribution.

Since the fund's creation, NOAA Fisheries has contributed more than $220 million to the restoration and protection of fish habitat in Oregon. The watershed enhancement board used that money to leverage matching funds from the state lottery, ultimately distributing $570 million to watershed councils.

Axing the fund eliminates more than a quarter of Oregon's annual budget for habitat restoration. That's simply wrong, no matter whose administration is blowing smoke behind the mirrors.

This is the second year that Trump has attempted to kill the recovery fund in his budget. The previous administration reduced it, but never wavered from a commitment to help states rehabilitate their rivers.

Last year, a delegation from Oregon, Washington and Idaho traveled to Washington D.C. to emphasize the fund's critical role in recovery. Fortunately, it was effective. And may be again. Alaska and California are scheduled to join the consternation this year.

Besides resurrecting neglected watersheds, federal investment also stimulates economic activity. Research from the University of Oregon suggests that for every million dollars spent on habitat restoration, between 15 and 24 jobs are created. More than 90 cents of every dollar stays put -- often in rural communities.

The recovery fund also supports Oregon's $516 million sport and commercial fishing industries (most of it sport) and their attendant 17,400 jobs. There's also improved drinking and swimming water, reduced flooding and habitat improvement for the 28 salmon and steelhead populations still listed as threatened or endangered.

And while the road to recovery may seem slow, consider coastal wild coho salmon, the original issue at the genesis of Kitzhaber's basin-by-basin network. Wild coho are responding to improved river systems on the coast. Slowly, perhaps, but ever so surely.

"These watersheds have been impacted for 150 or more years," said Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. "It started with trapping out the beavers, then came dams, over-grazing, channelization."

One of Houston's model streams, Whychus Creek, ran dry two of every three summers from 1912 through 1999, when restoration efforts began. Renamed from Squaw Creek and with the help of Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund funds, Houston said it hasn't been dry since the turn of the century. Steelhead and chinook are returning for the first time in more than 50 years.

Houston calls this kind of budgeting a "panic test."

His watershed council stands to lose 60 percent of its program without the federal fund and, like other councils, will face difficult decisions. Losing the fund could end the statewide momentum, he said.

"If we want watershed-scale recovery, we need watershed-scale treatment," he said. "Otherwise it's like putting a band-aid on your elbow and expecting your knee to feel better."

Budget shenanigans with natural resources are dire. Our survival as a race is lockstep with how we treat our environment.

Reducing its recovery to political panhandling is morally unconscionable.

Bill Monroe is a former columnist and regular contributor to The Oregonian. He also serves as chairman of the Clackamas River Basin Council. 

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