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US Effort to Save Salmon Populations Draws Praise, Criticism - 2001-08-22

A massive federal recovery effort is now underway in the Pacific Northwest to save populations of wild salmon threatened with extinction. Federal officials believe that the eight-year, $4 billion recovery plan is the best way to restore native salmon runs without jeopardizing a regional economy based on cheap hydroelectric power and agricultural exports. But, the recovery effort has plenty of critics as well.

Fishing guide Grant Putnam makes his living on the Columbia River along the border between Oregon and Washington State. He believes the salmon recovery plan is working. "We went from three years ago having a marginal return rate to this year our spring chinook [salmon] season, for example, heck, we had huge numbers of fish," he says. "I probably tripled the number of [fishing trips] that I did this year over three years ago."

But retiree Lorne Gardener of Portland has a different view. He has fished the Columbia for ten years. "I figured that when I retired I could really have a lot of fun," he says. "But this will be my last year. I will not do it anymore. It is just getting worse and worse and worse."

Federal officials acknowledge that the recovery effort has had only modest success so far. The numbers of salmon returning to fresh water from the ocean to spawn are up this year. But most of those fish were reared in hatcheries and the outlook for saving the dwindling stocks of wild salmon remains uncertain.

This year's drought in Oregon and the threat of power shortages throughout the west demonstrate how the salmon recovery effort often bumps up against economic realities. Dams that normally spill additional water to help fish downstream have held back this year to ensure that there is adequate water for power and irrigation.

Larry Cassidy, chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council, says "the problem is that the power situation in the northwest is unusual right now because we have a drought. And the consumer looks at electrical power as an essential service and he is not very sympathetic to situations that say you have got to have rolling [power] blackouts or the potential for brownouts [power reductions]."

Part of the recovery plan involves new requirements on industry and farmers aimed at improving water quality in the headwaters where the salmon spawn.

Some environmentalists have also suggested breaching four dams on one of the Columbia's main tributaries in an effort to make it easier for the salmon to migrate to the ocean and return.

Tim Wigley is president of the Oregon Forest Industries Council, an organization that represents the largest timber companies operating in Oregon. He says industry is willing to cooperate in the fight to save the salmon, but he says there is also concern that environmentalists will push too far. "There has to be a balance. It is nice to want to protect species, but we also have to protect jobs and humans as well too," he says.

There is also criticism of the salmon recovery effort from some environmentalists who believe the plan does not go far enough. Joe Whitworth is Executive Director of Oregon Trout. He believes that breaching four dams on one of the Columbia's tributaries is the only way to ensure that native salmon can reach their traditional spawning areas in Washington State and Idaho. "Until we can give that fish a better chance on his own, then they are not going to be able to come back [to fresh water to spawn] on their own," he says. "And so we have essentially moved from being what I would term a steward [of the watershed] into being a zookeeper."

Trying to satisfy the competing demands of environmentalists and industry in the battle to save the salmon is not easy. But the federal officials leading the effort remain optimistic.

Doug Arndt is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that built and maintains many of the hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest: "So the salmon is a huge issue and I think what has happened is that people have recognized out here [that] you can fight, but we are all going to lose while you are fighting," he says. "You need to have some common approach and believe me, everyone in the region wants salmon, it is one thing there is no fight about, it is how you get there."

Many in the Pacific Northwest view the salmon recovery effort as part of a larger challenge, how to maintain the natural environment in the midst of a growing regional economy.

Court Smith is a cultural anthropologist at Oregon State University. He has written extensively about the importance of salmon as a regional symbol in the northwest. "The salmon are really being used as a part of a larger agenda or a larger issue about how natural is this environment going to be," he says. "And so salmon are part of that along with spotted owls and other endangered species as to, you know, can we maintain a more natural environment or are we going to urbanize everything, pave it over and grow, grow, grow."

In the 1800's, up to 16-million salmon swam up the Columbia to their native spawning areas in Washington State and Idaho. Now, only about 200,000 wild salmon return each year and environmentalists warn that time is running out to save what they regard as an enduring symbol of the Pacific Northwest's natural bounty.