Federal officials released on July 27 their long-awaited plan for saving 12 stocks of endangered salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers. As expected, they stopped short of recommending to Congress what the majority of scientists say may be necessary to prevent Snake River salmon from going extinct - breaching four federal dams in eastern Washington (HCN, 12/20/99: Unleashing the Snake).


The reason was obvious: There still is not a political majority in the region in favor of removing the Army Corps of Engineers-operated dams, which provide 5 percent of the region's electricity. Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush flatly opposes breaching and has succeeded in making it a major political issue in the key states of Oregon and Washington.


Wedged in the middle of the issue, the Gore campaign has chosen the same strategy Bill Clinton used to appease both environmentalists and labor in the region in 1992 - call for a summit after the election. In 1993, Clinton successfully negotiated a compromise on the spotted owl-ancient forest issue with his Northwest Forest Plan.


Now Gore hopes he will be able to do the same, if he wins. If he loses, then the conflicting positions of the federal agencies who developed the Clinton salmon plan will leave opponents - namely the tribes and conservationists - an apparently strong court case under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and several Indian treaties.


Their case will be strong because, even if implemented, the long list of actions proposed by the administration likely won't save Snake River fish. These runs were the first to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, and the failure of previous plans to stop their steep decline is the reason a federal judge ordered the federal government, in 1995, to draw up the current plan. The new plan is stronger than past editions, but many question whether it can be fully implemented, since it lacks regulatory teeth.


The administration's plan hinges on the logic that only four of the 12 stocks of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act must migrate through the Snake River dams. So it prioritizes immediate actions that help all the salmon.


That includes such things as restoring habitat in the 46-mile stretch of Columbia River estuary, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. But such improvements must be weighed against the further degradation of the estuary that will result from a massive new dredging program for the Port of Portland. That project received the federal government's stamp of approval earlier this year, so the best that can happen for the estuary is mitigation, not restoration.


Then there is the matter of water flows in the Snake and Columbia rivers. The draft plan for salmon calls for additional water releases from reservoirs in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Canada to push the salmon more quickly oceanward. This alternative is unpopular with irrigation farmers, boaters and communities that depend on full reservoirs, which is probably why the Clinton administration did not specify how much water salmon need. Instead, it proposed to create a new agency to buy water from willing sellers. There is no backup plan should the voluntary program fail.


The most ambitious part of the plan is a massive program to repair the watersheds where salmon spawn, beginning with 16 targeted river basins. Improving spawning habitat is important, but most of Idaho's habitat is in wilderness, so it's already in pretty good shape. The real problem remains getting the salmon through the gantlet of federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.


No place illustrates this better than the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Federal and state managers have kept cattle, hatchery fish and excessive numbers of fishermen out of the area. Yet in two of the last five years, no salmon have returned to the Middle Fork. Even this year, in what biologists are calling the best conditions salmon have had in two decades, the number of returning salmon fall short of recovery, just barely high enough to sustain the population.


More decisions ahead

The administration's plan doesn't entirely discard the option of dismantling the four Snake River dams. If wild salmon numbers in the Snake River don't rise by 10 percent in five years, the feds will review the plan and reconsider breaching. If after eight years the population growth rate falls by as much as 0.5 percent or more, they must require changes in the federal hydrosystem, most likely dam breaching.


But the dim and distant prospect of dam breaching leaves the plan flawed, biologically and legally. As Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Salmon, says, "This plan disappoints us, not so much because it punts on dam breaching, but because it lacks any penalties or other mechanisms to compel action on anything else."


Privately, the administration's point man on salmon, George Frampton, has told conservationists and tribal leaders that they will see a stronger final plan after the election. But with some scientific projections showing wild spring chinook salmon going extinct in 2017 - about the earliest the dams would physically come out under the plan's schedule - neither group bought that message.


"Today I will go home to my people and tell them that the White House has decided that Snake River salmon should go extinct in order to save four federal dams," said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees. "I will tell them that it appears we must go to court to save salmon."


No lawsuits can be brought until a final plan is completed at the end of the year. That means the next decision on salmon will come in November, when voters decide between Bush's pro-dam position or Gore's future summit.


With years of court battles and still more plans stretching out in the future, it will be up to the salmon themselves to hold on until the region is ready to make a stronger commitment.


Rocky Barker, author of Saving All the Parts: Reconciling Economics and the Endangered Species Act, is an environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman in Boise. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org).

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Rocky Barker