I've been writing about the Great Salmon War in the Columbia River Basin for so long that by now you'd think I'd have grown a tail and fins. When I wrote my first stories, Moby Dick was a minnow, my 30-year-old son was still in middle school and the projected extinction date for salmon, 2017, seemed like a long way off.
That was a lifetime ago, but the battle lines and the players haven't changed much. Fisheries biologists, Indian tribes and conservation groups are still fighting to save the salmon. On the other side, dam operators -- the Bonneville Power Administration -- aluminum smelters, commercial irrigators and barge operators are fighting for economic livelihoods that depend on cheap power, cheap water and cheap transportation, all of which tend to hurt the fishes' chance for survival.
Amid the lawsuits, its easy to lose sight of the fact that we hominids are just one player in a complex ecosystem that is roughly the size of France, and that the salmoninds, not us, are the keystone species. More than 500 other species from otters to eagles depend on salmon for their survival. Remove the salmon, say marine biologists, and the whole system will collapse. Remove us, and guess what happens? The whole system thrives.
Squarely in the middle of this conundrum sit four broad-shouldered flood-control dams on the lower Snake River. Former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith once famously declared that he would sooner chain himself to a Snake River dam than see the dam breached. Some of us in the press pointed out that the senator's vow could solve two of the salmons' biggest problems.
From the start, the federal government has refused to produce something demanded by the Endangered Species Act: a realistic biological opinion that lays out a scientific strategy for preventing endangered salmon stocks from going extinct. All the while, as the passing years bore witness to $5 billion worth of legal logrolling that has tried everything but breaching the dams, the extinction clock has never missed a beat as it ticks toward the salmons' expected demise in 2017.
The reason for this failure is pretty straightforward. Elected officials, being political animals, capitulate to political interests at the expense of science. None of the lawyers and politicians on the government's side have ever been willing to give the science a fair shake.
Fifteen years ago, there was still a sense that we had a little time to play with. The Clinton administration's biological opinion viewed stalling as an asset, one that allowed officials to put off the thorny decision of dam breaching in an election year. Clinton's biological opinion promised instead to invest billions of dollars in habitat restoration, but the federal court in Portland, Ore., which oversees the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act for salmon, said this was too little, too late. Any opinion that failed to address the removal of the Snake River dams was ignoring too much science to meet the straight-face test under the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
Exit Bill Clinton, enter George Bush, whose first trip to Judge James Redden's court was a debacle. The Bush team replaced science with fiction by declaring that the dams were untouchable because they were permanent fixtures on the landscape -- like volcanoes. This wasn't science or law. This was a fairy tale. And for federal district Judge James Redden, it was the last straw. Redden declared the Bush biological opinion to be a "flagrant exercise in cynicism," and took all of the president's men to the woodshed.
In March of this year, Judge Redden called the stakeholders back to his courtroom for one last Come-to-Jesus meeting. Much progress has been made, he said, but there is still one glaring flaw in the government's latest plan. Surprise: The plan fails to address the issue of the dams. Redden gave the government one last chance to answer the following question: If all the government's elaborate and expensive half-measures for saving salmon fail, will the government at last address the role of fish-killing dams?
If that question is not answered after all these years, and soon, said Redden, he knows somebody who, with the force of law, can answer it.
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Corvallis, Oregon.