Oregon governor says volunteers can save coho

  • Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber


Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, an avid fly fisherman, has landed $30 million to restore coho salmon populations and clean up the state's degraded streams.

In late February, leaders of the legislature and the timber industry announced they would each chip in $15 million for the programs. With that, the Democratic governor ended an intense period of lobbying that included a trip to meet with White House staff in Washington, D.C.

The question now is: Will the governor's haul convince the federal government that there's no need to list the state's two coho salmon populations under the Endangered Species Act?

A federal court has given the National Marine Fisheries Service until April 25 to make the decision, and many environmentalists believe the scientific evidence for listing is overwhelming. A century of grazing, logging, farming and fishing has dropped the numbers of wild Oregon coastal coho from more than a million fish at the turn of the century to less than 100,000 today.

The fisheries service has not yet shown its hand on the listing decision, but the agency has worked closely with the governor on his Coastal Salmon Restoration Initiative and has indicated funding levels will influence its decision. The Oregon Forest Industries Council says industry funds will only be made available if the fisheries service holds off on listing or accepts Kitzhaber's plan as its own recovery plan following a listing.

Kitzhaber believes a listing would give too much power to federal agencies and lead to onerous regulations on private landowners. That, he says, could backfire against the fish, which, unlike their brethren in the Columbia River Basin to the north, spawn in many streams which course through private lands.

The governor's plan relies heavily on voluntary efforts. Two-thirds of the money he seeks would be earmarked for incentives and grants encouraging ranchers, farmers and other landowners to participate in watershed improvements. The programs would also allow Oregon to retain control of developing cleanup plans for 870 waterways that are in violation of the Clean Water Act.

"We hope to demonstrate that this is the best way to help the fish," Kitzhaber spokesman Bob Applegate told The Oregonian. "We think it would accomplish more than actually listing the fish."

Some conservationists say they still want the clout of the Endangered Species Act.

"While the programs are great, they aren't adequate," says Diane Valentine, an Oregon Natural Resources Council staffer. "We need to be able to enforce the protection of the fish."

Valentine notes that a good portion of the habitat is on federal land and that the southern Oregon population of coho is found in northern California, outside the jurisdiction of the governor's plans.

Other conservationists feel differently. Oregon Trout executive director Geoff Pampush, who four years ago asked the fisheries service to list the coho, says his group would like to see the agency defer a listing for two years to give the governor's plan a chance. After resisting the governor for months, the Republican-dominated legislature has "gotten religion" on fish conservation, Pampush says, and a listing could temper its commitment.

Pam Burgess, the governor's assistant for natural resources, says listing the fish could snuff out the voluntary cooperation of the timber industry and private landowners. A memo circulated by the governor's supporters in the state legislative assembly paints an even bleaker scenario. Federal involvement, the memo said, would delay numerous projects along waterways and could have "an overall chilling effect on investments made in the region." Private land owners could find federal consultants walking their lands, concocting stiff land-use regulations, it warned, and fishermen could find themselves excluded from their favorite holes because they might accidentally catch a coho.

Such dire predictions finally convinced the Republican-controlled legislature to support the governor's programs. But even the governor's salmon-project leader, Jim Martin, admits the state is taking a gamble. "If 10,000 landowners kind of go into passive resistance, this plan won't work," he told the Capital Press. "The game's over."

For more information, contact the governor's office at 503/378-3111.

The writer travels and lives in the Pacific Northwest. Associate editor Paul Larmer contributed to this report.

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