Dog and pony show about salmon and owls

  VANCOUVER, Wash. - Environmentalists chanted, "Habitat, habitat, have to have the habitat." Some carried stuffed animals and paper fish. A straggly line of loggers dressed in prison garb marched past them, wearing buttons proclaiming "Property Rights ESA Hostage." Inside the Red Lion Inn, seven Republican members of a House task force charged with rewriting the federal Endangered Species Act heard testimony in a hearing that drew 1,000 people and was every bit as orchestrated as the demonstrations outside.


The "greens versus loggers' show was resurrected April 24 for the benefit of the task force, which is expected to propose weakening the law's protections for the nation's most vulnerable wildlife and plants and making it more user-friendly to loggers, ranchers, miners and property rights hard-liners.


People in the Northwest have lived with the act for five years now, since the Bush administration listed the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. The consequences have been profound.


The listing triggered sharp reductions in federal logging and energized an anti-environmental "wise-use" movement that helped elect the new Republican majority in Congress. The addition of the marbled murrelet to the list forced even stricter protections for coastal forests, where the seabird nests in old conifer trees.


The listing of three endangered Snake River salmon runs and the precarious status of several others have forced sharp curtailment of commercial and sports fishing and may soon require unprecedented changes in operation of Columbia and Snake river dams.


Even its supporters say the act could be made to work better if federal agencies had the power to heed warning signs before wildlife and plant species decline to the point where they need the intensive care the 1973 act provides.


The Vancouver field hearing and four others in California were the only ones the task force held in the West. Like previous hearings, this one was stacked with critics of the act, who were invited to tell horror stories about its purported excesses. Among them were a mill owner, a resident of a timber town, an aluminum worker, a rancher, a miner, a utility commissioner, three irrigators and a horse outfitter.


Of 22 speakers, only six clearly favored retaining or strengthening the act. Two of the six represented fishermen, who were added to the panel only after they flooded the office of task force chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., with phone calls demanding a seat at the table. The only scientists invited to testify were two foresters who both have close ties to the timber industry.


Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who chairs the House (Natural) Resources Committee, appointed the task force and asked Pombo to chair it to head off hearings on reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act by his own subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans. That subcommittee would normally have jurisdiction, but it is chaired by Rep. Jim Saxton, a New Jersey Republican who supports the act. Pombo, a vehement critic of the law who represents a Central Valley district with numerous hot-button endangered species conflicts, had no such handicap.


Obviously sensitive about charges that road shows in Louisiana, Texas and North Carolina were "sham hearings," congressional staffers handed members of the news media in Vancouver a 10-page rebuttal, "Correcting the "Untruths' Spread by Professional Environmental Organizations & Some Liberal Congressmen."


Open minds?


Pombo and Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., in whose district the hearing was held, both vowed to keep open minds. "The whole idea of doing these hearings was to get out into areas most affected by the Endangered Species Act to look for ideas and solutions," Smith said at a press conference. "There are people who have common-sense solutions, but it gets filtered through their national associations by the time it gets to us." Defending the makeup of the panels, she said more people were added late in the process "to balance the spectrum."


Smith admitted later that the task force blew it by failing to invite a representative from Columbia River tribes, who, like commercial fishermen, have been devastated economically by the decline of Snake River salmon. The tribes did not even have enough fish this spring for their annual ceremonies celebrating the salmon's return.


Seven Democrats and five Republicans on the task force skipped the Northwest hearing. "There has been no effort to be objective," said one of the no-shows, Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn.


Rep. Wes Cooley of Oregon made no pretense of objectivity. "The Endangered Species Act is not going to go away; it's not going to sunset, no matter how much we might want that," he said, to groans from the audience. The groans grew louder when Cooley also asserted that while environmentalists have powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C., the timber industry has "very few."


Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho issued a not-so-veiled threat to environmentalists. "If we failed to finance the act it wouldn't exist any longer," she said. "All we'd have to do is zero out the budget."





The Northwest is different


But though stacking the witness list may have played well in other regions, it backfired in the Pacific Northwest, where support for the act is strong - one recent poll showed 60 percent of the region's residents favor retaining it - and where environmentalists began organizing a month ahead of time to make sure their views were heard both inside and outside the ballroom.


They nearly matched the turnout of loggers mobilized by "wise-use" organizer Chuck Cushman of Battle Ground, Wash. Cushman's efforts to organize a series of events leading up to the conference, including a log truck convoy, fizzled. He had to settle for prison uniforms.


At the hearing, articulate arguments were made on all sides. One of the most revealing came from Stan Shaufler, a former sawmill owner from Lakebay, Wash., who said he has come to realize the overcutting of old-growth forests had to be stopped.


"The old-growth logs I milled represented centuries of growth," Shaufler said. "Their renewability seemed more and more doubtful in the light of vast clearcuts ... the logging of the national forests was a disgrace at the rates instituted and maintained by our expert forest managers."


Bud Mercer, representing Columbia-Snake River Irrigators, disagreed with the means the federal fisheries agencies are proposing to save wild Snake River salmon. "The Colum-bia/Snake River hydropower-navigation-recreation-irrigation system is the best in the world," he said. Five years ago it would have been inconceivable to me that government agencies and special-interest organizations from outside our region would advocate crippling or killing this giant based on questionable science ... "


Mack Birkmaier, president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, argued that the act has been interpreted far differently than its authors intended. Some ranchers in northeastern Oregon, where he lives, have had their grazing privileges curtailed to protect spawning areas for imperiled salmon runs. "It is now obvious that many of our congressmen who voted on the original bill did not have a clear understanding of its potential for budget-busting, for taking of private property outright or through regulation, and for actual species and habitat loss because the law provides the means to gridlock any kind of management at all," Birkmaier said.


But Mitch Friedman of the Greater Ecosystem Alliance, based in Bellingham, Wash., said a big stick is necessary to get all land managers to do the right thing. "Painful as it is, no single substitute for regulation is evident in our society," he said.


Though the views expressed in Vancouver clashed, the proceedings remained civil, and there was some agreement that the act could do a better job of involving local people in developing the conservation plans they will have to live with. "You must enfranchise the local people," said University of Washington forestry professor Chadwick Oliver. "They need to support efforts to save species."


Personal horror stories were scarce in Vancouver, where most speakers testified more broadly about the act's impact on entire industries.


Leslie Stevenson Campbell, co-owner of SDS Lumber Co. in Bingen, Wash., came close when she described her company's attempt to cope with the northern spotted owl. Stevenson said timber sales on nearby national forest land had come to a near-standstill, and now biologists have found several owls on the company's own second-growth timberlands, forcing further logging restrictions.


David Zepponi of Klamath Water Users Association, which represents Klamath Basin irrigators, said restrictions on irrigation withdrawals to protect two endangered sucker fish are forcing property values down as farmers face uncertainty over future water supplies. One Realtors' group estimates $188 million in lost property values if protecting critical habitat for the fish comes before the needs of farmers, Zepponi said.


On the other hand, Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said the failure of state and federal agencies to protect wild Pacific salmon, as the act requires, forces huge sacrifices by commercial and sports fishermen.


With a few exceptions, "the entire ocean-going salmon fleet was closed down in 1994 because of these declines," Spain said. "We estimate that coastwide we have now lost 90 percent of our income from the commercial fishery" as compared to 1976-1993 averages.


Pombo said it may not be the act itself but the way it is enforced that has triggered so much opposition. "A lot of people feel the regulators are out of control," he said. "It's not the original intent of the law that is at issue," but "regulatory overkill."


No representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service, the two agencies charged with enforcing the act, were invited to defend their record. Pombo said he hopes a bill will be ready for introduction in the House by June 1.


By late morning, many environmentalists had heard enough. About 100 stood up en masse, put on black gags and marched out of the hearing. "They're not hearing, they're not listening to us," said Michael Garvin of Eugene, Ore. n





Kathie Durbin lives in Portland, Oregon.