Energy & Environment

Saving the Salmon

State, city and county governments must mature into equal partners to balance economic and ecological consequences.
by | May 2000

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Barely a generation has passed since the federal government dammed the Snake and Columbia rivers to invigorate the Pacific Northwest's economy. But sentiment is starting to emerge for a reversal of that costly enterprise. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has taken the lead: He wants to create bypasses at four major dams on the Snake to reopen the waters for migrating salmon.

So far, Kitzhaber doesn't have much support from the leadership of neighboring states. The governors of Washington, Idaho and Montana remain dead set against the scheme.

Still, Kitzhaber's idea suggests that the politics of protecting endangered species may be slowly shifting. For three decades, state and local officials in the West have complained about federal endangered-species policy, but have done little to establish a policy of their own. In general, they have left it to Congress and competing interest groups to settle threatened wildlife's fate. States and localities were not the key decision makers in the bitter debate over preservation of the spotted owl in the early 1990s.

Now, federal biologists have listed more than a dozen salmon species up and down the Pacific Coast for federal Endangered Species Act protection. But this time, governments at all levels will have to take responsibility themselves for reviving once-plentiful salmon runs in the region's all-important rivers. State governments, and cities and counties as well, must mature into equal partners in balancing economic and ecological consequences. "To me, this is not just about doing what the law requires--it is about doing what we know to be right," the Oregon governor told the American Fisheries Society in February.

As Kitzhaber is quick to note, merely opening the Snake River dams won't be enough to salvage fish that many Northwestern residents see as vital components of the region's unique interaction of marine, river and mountain ecosystems. Revamping hydropower operations--and most likely, taking down some dams--will be essential for fish to resume migrating upstream in numbers big enough to make a difference in sustaining some species. But state and local governments have a lot of other work to do to clear the way for salmon to make a comeback.

The Northwest Power Planning Council, a body representing the four states within the Columbia Basin, has worked with nine federal agencies on alternative "4-H" strategies for revising the hydroelectric system, renegotiating salmon harvest levels, reconsidering hatchery practices and restoring salmon habitat. Federal, state and tribal governments must take the lead on the first three kinds of measures. But local governments hold land-use planning power, and they'll have the final say on whether or not salmon can thrive in the streams and rivers that flow from mountains to sea across multiple political boundaries.

In Oregon, Kitzhaber has made salmon recovery one of his administration's top priorities. The state's Environmental Quality Department has been prodding the Port of Portland toward more extensive cleanup of pesticides, PCBs and other contaminants in the city's harbor to protect salmon runs. Up and down the Pacific Coast, other cities and counties meanwhile have forged ahead on their own to preserve or restore salmon streams. Around Puget Sound, three counties--King, Snohomish and Pierce counties--began a decade ago buying streamside lands, improving erosion controls, regulating shoreline development, and drafting watershed plans in an effort to help save the native salmon.

"These are our fish--not federal fish, not state government fish--so we ought to step up and deal with the problem," King County Council member Larry Phillips said five years ago. Those efforts weren't enough to keep the National Marine Fisheries Service from listing the Puget Sound chinook and six other salmon species as threatened. The federal agency is now drafting rules that could, at the most draconian extreme, force local governments "to turn everybody away at the permit counter" when they seek approval for new industry or construction, Phillips notes.

For now, federal fisheries officials are settling for local officials' promises to restore habitat, clean up stormwater discharges, install culverts, revise road-building standards and ultimately get a handle on growth in the region. If Puget Sound counties hadn't started moving that way a decade ago, "we'd have very little sense that it's doable," Phillips says. The work that's already been done, he adds, "puts us in the best position to control our own destiny."

Kitzhaber is making the same point. The Oregon governor is halfway through a final term, so perhaps he can shrug off the political consequences. But the bitter spotted owl debate left the Pacific Northwest without much sense that governments can manage environmental policy wisely. By pushing ahead with ambitious salmon-recovery plans, public officials such as Kitzhaber and Phillips are giving residents hope for what the governor calls "a Pacific Northwest that remains ecologically, spiritually, and, yes, economically and politically, intact."


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