The BPA's influence on the science behind the salmon debate may not have been limited to funding. Former NOAA Fisheries Northwest Region Director Bob Lohn is a lawyer who spent most of the 1990s working for the BPA, first as general counsel for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC), a BPA-sponsored entity charged with balancing the needs of hydropower and salmon, and then as director of the agency's Fish and Wildlife Program. Salmon advocates criticized his performance in both jobs, and were not pleased when George Bush appointed him to NOAA in 2001.
In 2003, Lohn announced the creation of a new Office of Salmon Recovery whose sole mission would be to deal with threatened and endangered salmon in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Tapped to lead the new office was Rob Walton. Walton, like Lohn, is not a scientist; he came to NOAA from a job at a utility lobby that opposes salmon recovery measures that take more water from the hydropower system. But Lohn did hire a scientist, former NPCC staffer Bruce Suzumoto, to be his assistant director at NOAA Fisheries. Suzumoto worked for the same utility lobby as Walton, and before that was a biologist for a public utility company.
During Lohn's tenure, in 2004, NOAA tried to convince Redden's court that mainstem Columbia and Snake River dams have become an integral and unassailable part of the landscape, and should therefore be exempt from changes to make them more friendly to creatures such as salmon. Redden was not impressed, and threatened heavy-handed judicial management of the hydrosystem if NOAA couldn't come up with a more credible opinion.
Though Lohn stepped down the day Barack Obama was inaugurated, his legacy in policy and personnel matters will be felt for some time to come. A memo he issued in September 2006 directed NOAA scientists away from a process, encouraged by Judge Redden, that provided for greater cooperation between state, tribal, and federal science agencies in crafting a better recovery plan. The Lohn memo, salmon advocates argued in court last month, came up with a new path to achieve the same result in the 2008 recovery plan as in years gone by -- that no major changes to the Columbia River's hydropower system are needed. What inspired Lohn to issue this decree remains something of a mystery.
But part of the answer might be gleaned from a late 2006 exchange between Schaller's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office and NOAA Fisheries. Around the same time Lohn was drafting his memo, NOAA invited a team of Fish and Wildlife scientists to provide feedback on the latest version of its fish passage model, the one managed by Zabel, which is now included in the plan before Judge Redden. Schaller and his colleagues wrote that NOAA's model relied too little on conditions in the river, and too heavily on what happens in the ocean. What happened next came as a surprise. "We were told by NOAA that our input would no longer be needed in the process," Schaller says.
Keeping the scientific discussion more open, at least one panel of experts has noted, will be essential to making real progress on salmon recovery. The Council of Elders, a group that includes five veteran Columbia River fisheries biologists who between them have about a century and a half of experience in the Basin's salmon wars, have called for nothing less than the dawn of a new era in addressing the salmon impasse. Describing the federal response to the salmon's Endangered Species Act listing as "continually skewed," they recently recommended that the recovery effort be coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instead of NOAA, and that the BPA's recovery program be immediately audited. Their report notes that politics as usual on the Columbia preceded the Bush years, and will likely persist into the future, unless the Obama administration sets a bold new course.
With his many years of experience, Dr. Anderson might qualify for membership in the Council of Elders, but he's not waiting for an invitation. Instead, he's still at work in his sparsely furnished office. He thinks the data gathered over the past decade might soon render the latest version of his original computer model obsolete. "Rich (Zabel) is a whiz kid," Anderson says of his former student, "but I think he's taken that model about as far as it can go."
Anderson has read articles published by Oregon State University's Schreck and Fish and Wildlife's Schaller, and is keenly interested in their notion that the dams' cumulative impacts on ocean-bound juvenile salmon may not show up until they reach the estuary. He's looking forward to working with his graduate students on a research project investigating the matter, poised to start in coming weeks as young salmon begin to make their break for the sea. "I've been very lucky," he says. "The BPA has been gracious to me, and let me study exactly the things I've wanted to for most of my career. Who knows, we may yet tell them something they don't want to hear."
This is the first article in a two-part series looking back and ahead at the plight of the Columbia Basin's salmon.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.