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Save Our Wild Salmon

Sunday, November 11, 2012.

Whatever ultimately is written about the first Obama administration, one fact remains beyond dispute:

Like its predecessors, it failed to resolve the fish vs. dams dilemma that has so bedeviled the communities of the Snake and Columbia river systems.

Four times in succession, the federal community of dam operators and fish agencies have outlined a strategy of hatchery reform, habitat restoration, harvest limitations and hydro fixes. Four times, the federal courts have found that strategy - called a biological opinion - illegal under the Endangered Species Act.

The latest came in August 2011, when U.S. District Judge James Redden gave the feds another two years to come up with a better model. Since then, Redden has relinquished his stewardship of the case, handing it over to U.S. District Judge Michael Simon.

But his deadline for a decision is approaching.

After four fish recovery plans, more than $10 billion spent and seemingly endless lawsuits, what will we have to show for it?

A fifth plan?

Another round of lawsuits?

More money spent?

Continued economic uncertainty for Pacific Northwest farmers, power producers, shippers and sport fishing communities?

More mediocre fish recovery numbers? While numbers have improved since the nadir of the 1990s, only one adult fish returns to Idaho spawning grounds for every 100 smolts that leave for the ocean. The Northwest Power Conservation Council says that ratio must double -- even quadruple -- to assure a sustainable population of fish.

Three years ago, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, suggested using the collaborative process he found so helpful in crafting a wilderness bill for the Owyhee Canyonlands and forging a management strategy for the Clearwater basin.

Seated at the table would be all the stakeholders - irrigators, navigators, wildlife advocates, the tribes, power generators and conservationists. Everything would be on the table - including the possibility of breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River.

"Does that mean dam breaching must be on the table? Yes. But that also means not dam breaching must be on the table," Crapo said at the time.

In the years since, other Northwest political leaders have joined Crapo's call. Earlier this year, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber wrote: "By gathering the parties around a table, and working in good faith to reach common ground on a fisheries plan that is supported by sound science, we can come to the 2014 deadline with a historic agreement that ends the 20-year chapter of salmon wars in the Columbia basin, an agreement that protects fish while maintaining our supply of clean and affordable energy."

Elsewhere, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch and Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood echoed that theme: "The answers to this challenge need not be decided in court. As the Idaho Roadless Rule demonstrates, we can continue to find long-term solutions that are good for fish and people by bringing together those who are affected and creating a dialogue.

Since Crapo raised that option, a third way between breaching and extinction has emerged. Redden ordered increased flows through the dam spillways to aid fish migrate to the seat. Fish survival responded. In fact, there's reason to think bringing spill up to 55 percent or 60 percent of river flows during the April through August migration season might bring survival rates into a healthy range.

So at this crossroads of history, science and opportunity, fish advocates have taken up the challenge Crapo first issued: "Stakeholder talks can break this negative cycle," writes Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. "It won't be easy; the issues are tough, requiring effort and time to resolve. But such talks, if well-organized, bring a greater likelihood of success. ..."

What better time for a new approach than the closing of a campaign cycle and the opening of a new presidential term?

Or would you prefer more of the same? - M.T.

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