For more than 20 years, the fate of 13 threatened and endangered salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest has been a contest between the status quo agenda of politicians and power producers and a legacy of the Nixon era, the Endangered Species Act.

A few months ago, many of us in the press who have been following the salmon story predicted that the Bush administration’s long awaited recovery plan would end up as confetti in a judicial paper shredder. And so it has. U.S. District Court Judge James Redden ruled three weeks ago that the Bush plan violates federal law on four counts and amounts to a "shameless assault on the Endangered Species Act."

Judge Redden’s mounting frustration was evident June 10 when he convened warring stakeholders to his courtroom in Portland, Ore. A no-nonsense man who seems keenly aware that the clock is ticking toward extinction for salmon, Redden characterized the new Bush plan as "an exercise in cynicism." Then he delivered the bombshell he’d held in reserve.

The courtroom was hushed with suspense as he ordered the Bonneville Power Administration to comply with salmon advocates’ request for heavy releases of water from four Columbia Basin dams — three on the Snake River and one on the Columbia. This "summer spill" had been urged by fisheries zoologists to help juvenile salmon reach the sea.

Redden closed the session by characterizing the controversy over salmon as one made sick by years of bitter battles in federal courtrooms. After reminding everyone that Snake River fall chinook are in serious peril, he threw down the gauntlet to warring adversaries: "I want you to take advantage of this moment to get together and start talking. It’s not an insoluble problem...You’ve got an enormous responsibility here. You’re the ones who can put it together."

There, of course, is the rub, since no real solution has ever been sought. The proof is in declining fish counts. Over a period of 20 years, three presidential administrations have spent $4.5 billion to bring native salmon stocks ever closer to extinction. Look at the record:

  • In 1994, Redden’s predecessor, Judge Malcolm Marsh, issued an injunction against the Clinton administration’s recovery plan because it protected hydropower producers and other stakeholders at the expense of the fish.


  • In 1997, a year-long investigation by the Idaho Statesman found that the economics of business as usual made no dollars and cents. Snake River dams provide just 3 percent of the region’s hydropower, a gift to wheat farmers and barge operators. In addition to that gift, American taxpayers are forced to pay billions of dollars to fund ineffective, politicized recovery plans for ever-dwindling salmon stocks.


  • In July 2000, the Clinton administration unveiled a new recovery plan that finessed the subject of dam removal during a presidential election year. Once again, Judge Redden ruled that the proposed political solution violated the Endangered Species Act by ignoring humanity’s impact on endangered species.


  • In 2003, Redden ordered the Bush administration to resubmit a plan that complies with the Endangered Species Act. When the Bush plan was unveiled in 2004, it drew scorn from a coalition of Indian tribes, state agencies and conservation organizations, which asked the court for an injunction to stop the plan. Redden complied.


Now, the Bonneville Power Administration estimates the "summer spill" will cost an estimated $69 million in lost revenue. The agency and its allies, Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, R, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R, would have us believe that this is the price of giving scientists a seat at the recovery table. Their solution to the salmon crisis can be summed up in a single word: extinction. In a move that could not be more blatant, Sen. Craig just introduced a rider to an energy appropriations bill that would kill the agency that counts salmon swimming through the Columbia and Snake rivers.

By their actions and failures, politicians, the Bonneville power Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service have convinced the courts that they are unequal to the task of enforcing the law without judicial coercion. Judge Redden’s June 10 order cuts through the cynicism of stakeholders and reaffirms the letter of the law as it was written.

Thanks to Judge Redden’s courage, we may have one last chance to get this thing right, for us and for the fish.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes and the Trial that Forged a Nation. He writes in Corvallis, Oregon.