Salmon plan can't stand alone

  • Salmon fishing, circa 1910

    Ore. Historical Society photo by J.F. Ford

Two years ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber boasted that his state could do a better job of managing coho salmon than the Endangered Species Act. The Oregon Plan, he said, was an innovative approach to endangered species management on state and private land - a collaborative, mostly voluntary approach that could replace top-down federal regulations.

The promise of local solutions brought the timber industry to the table, and the governor hoped its cooperation would help to protect fish habitat on private land, where the Endangered Species Act is often difficult to enforce.

Even the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for managing endangered marine species, went along with the $30 million plan, deciding not to include most Oregon populations of coho when it listed the California and Washington populations last year.

But critics said the Oregon Plan alone was not enough to protect the fish, and took the Fisheries Service to court. In June, the federal court agreed, and this Aug. 3 the agency listed the coho as threatened in Oregon.

By accepting Oregon's promises of future protection as a substitute for immediate regulation, said the court, the Fisheries Service had violated the Endangered Species Act (HCN, 8/3/98).

Many activists hope the federal listing will kick-start a stalled recovery process. "Things were moving incredibly slowly," says Mary Scurlock of the Pacific Rivers Council, an environmental group involved in the Oregon Plan process. "Early on, there was this pie-in-the-sky idea that (the state and the Fisheries Service) would hold hands and develop proposals together. That fell apart pretty quickly."

During the Oregon Plan negotiations, the state and the Fisheries Service butted heads over a controversial revision of the state's Forest Practices Act. Rob Jones of the Fisheries Service says that other major issues not resolved by the Oregon Plan will now be tackled by the federal recovery plan, including regulation of commercial fishing, agricultural practices, and urban development.

"We need every available tool in the toolbox," says Ken Rait of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. His group, in cooperation with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, led the lawsuit against the Fisheries Service. "The Oregon Plan is a step in the right direction, but we need the Endangered Species Act as a safety net," he says.

Some observers wonder if the timber industry, which was lured on board with the chance to escape another listing, is now ready to jump ship and take along its huge tracts of privately owned land. It's a possibility that has many observers watching the Oregon process closely, especially since the plan is now being imitated in other states.

For now, it looks as though everyone is willing to keep talking. In a press conference Aug. 3, flanked by an environmentalist, a private landowner and a timber industry representative, the governor said the monitoring and recovery efforts begun by the plan will continue.

A timber tax providing about half of the plan's funding is set to be canceled after the listing, but the Oregon Forest Industries Council says it wants the tax to stay in place.

"Anytime you can develop solutions locally instead of swallowing federal solutions, you're better off in the long run," says spokesman Tim Wigley. "Of course, we wish there hadn't been a listing, but we've put so much time into it that it would be a shame to back out now."

"This gives (the timber industry) a chance to put their money where their mouth is," says Rait. "It would have been ludicrous if the Oregon Plan went away just because the law of the American people prevailed upon it."

Some say the timber industry is pinning its hopes on successful appeals by the Fisheries Service and the state, while other observers think an anti-clearcutting measure on the ballot this fall has the industry scrambling to polish its public image.

"The timber industry does not want to alienate the public," says Jim Myron of Oregon Trout, an environmental group that supported the Oregon Plan after initial opposition. "It's the clear-cutting measure that's keeping industry at the table."

In the end, says Jones, the political battle may make little difference to the fish, whose numbers continue to fall. "There's only one standard for species recovery," he says. "It's not like the coho need one thing if they're listed and one thing if they're not. Giving them a title of threatened and endangered doesn't change how many are left."

* Michelle Nijhuis, HCN reporter

Continuing coverage of community-based conservation efforts is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

You can contact ...

* The National Marine Fisheries Service at 503/230-5400;

* The Governor's Natural Resources Office, 503/378-3589;

* The Oregon Natural Resources Council, 503/283-6343.

High Country News Classifieds