Telling the truth is hard but necessary

  Dear HCN:

The February 20 High Country News article about the Idaho salmon lawsuit painted a misleading picture. The issues are not about minor legal technicalities, nor gaps between urban and rural folks.

The court's slam-dunk decision was the result of the continued failure of the Forest Service to follow the law and protect dwindling habitat for endangered salmon in Idaho. The agency had failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service on both individual projects and the forest plans; it failed to stop activities that damage salmon habitat.

This is not about dotting i's and crossing t's. The science is clear that degradation of streams' ecosystems is caused by the accumulation of small wounds from multiple projects throughout a watershed. The only way to assess and minimize cumulative impacts is to look comprehensively at all of the ongoing and proposed projects, which means assessing the entire forest plan, and then at how individual projects fit into the big picture.

This principle is fundamental to sound ecosystem and watershed management. It is also vital to saving endangered salmon habitat. The Forest Service is being hypocritical if it claims to want to implement ecosystem management, while trying to deny its obligation to consult on the forest plans.

We originally thought this case would be cleared up years ago. The case started in 1992 when the Pacific Rivers Council joined a raft of other environmental groups to sue the two nearby national forests across the Snake River in Oregon. Even then we filed suit only after all other remedies were exhausted. Because salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act in the Upper Columbia Basin, not just the Oregon side of the Snake, and because the Forest Service was avoiding the consultation process everywhere, we filed a similar suit in April 1994.

The Forest Service could have avoided these legal challenges by promptly consulting in good faith after the chinook salmon were protected under the act in 1992. The land management changes required could have been phased in, thus softening whatever economic impacts may exist. Yet the cases bumped along in the courts for years while the Forest Service repeated the same pattern of delay and denial that created the spotted owl fiasco.

They clearly should have resolved it in July of 1994, when the Oregon case was decided in the first slam-dunk decision in our favor. Many high-level people within the Forest Service and other federal agencies have told us that the old guard in the agency is using this case to sandbag the Endangered Species Act.

The Idaho situation shone some light on issues boiling behind the scenes for years. The controversy exposed the differences between some forest-protection groups concerned with hammered watersheds and land management, and some fish conservationists focused on fixing main-stem Columbia River dams. While a few fish advocates seem unhappy with the lawsuit, an equal number of forest activists screamed at us for agreeing to the 45-day stay. In fact, many forest activists attacked us for not going far enough to protect salmon habitat and watersheds (HCN, 3/6/95).

The forest activists are probably right. The Snake River Salmon Recovery Team Report (the Bevan Plan) to the National Marine Fisheries Service called for a moratorium on all projects that could damage salmon habitat on public or private lands in the Upper Columbia Basin, a proposal that goes far beyond what our lawsuits sought. These recommendations indicate the seriousness of the stream habitat problems in Idaho. Ironically, all eight Northwest senators endorsed the Bevan Plan in a letter to President Clinton on December 20, 1994.

This exposed a corrolary issue: the debate about whether it is primarily the main-stem Columbia River dams, or a combination of stream habitat loss, dams and other factors that have put anadromous salmon at risk of extinction. Scientific data indicate that habitat loss and degradation may be roughly equal to the impacts of the main-stem dams on salmon - a fact few in Idaho want to acknowledge. Both issues must be addressed.

Endangered salmon are the "canary in the coal mine," indicative of a much larger ecological crisis. Despite public denials from some state agencies, the dirty little secret in Idaho is that almost all native fish and aquatic organisms are endangered or declining, not just anadromous salmon. In fact, these problems are found throughout the Upper Columbia Basin and Northern Rockies. Native resident fish which do not run the Columbia River hydro gantlet, such as bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout and others, are endangered regionwide.

The dominant reason is habitat loss, which indicates that stream ecosystems are in crisis almost everywhere. Many of the resident fish have overlapping habitats with anadromous salmon.

Two major environmental impact statements are under way that may set the direction for federal land management in the Upper Columbia Basin in years to come. How can we avoid addressing the stream habitat problems in Idaho? Ironically, much of your Feb. 20 issue was devoted to Idaho's "Obvious: exhausted rivers."

The ecological crisis gets directly to the economic issues. Growing evidence indicates that continuing to allocate forest resources to activities that degrade salmon habitat may be generating some jobs and incomes in the traditional timber, logging and ranching sectors, but at the expense of jobs, incomes and economic health elsewhere in the state, regional and national economy. This isn't about rural vs. urban - it is about economic equity.

A recent analysis completed for Pacific Rivers Council by a private economics firm confirms this and came to four major conclusions regarding the economic consequences of protecting salmon habitat in the six Idaho forests: The primary economic issue is jobs vs. jobs, not jobs vs. salmon. That is, we are losing or depressing jobs in other sectors of the economy, and are forcing others at the state, regional and national levels to bear explicit and implicit costs by continuing logging, grazing and mining jobs that degrade salmon habitat.

Habitat protection would likely strengthen, not weaken economies; curtailing damaging activities will have minimal adverse consequences for Idaho's economy; and acting now will accelerate economic transitions that would have occurred eventually anyway.

The pressures for change come primarily from powerful economic forces that will not dissipate even if laws such as the Endangered Species Act are changed, or pressure from environmental groups ends.

Which leads to the last issue. Since the origins of the environmental movement, one of the most important roles has been to expose environmental problems, to flush out the truth about government actions, and to hold government accountable.

Salmon loss and stream degradation in Idaho - especially on public lands - are primarly caused by the failure of government to follow the law. If the environmental community does not tell the public about these issues, and hold government accountable, who will?

Should we deny or try to sweep these problems under the rug simply because we are concerned about the public reaction, or want the public to focus on other issues? Should Rachel Carson have refrained from publishing Silent Spring for fear of the reaction of the chemical industry? Should environmentalists have refrained from protecting the northern spotted owl (itself just the "canary in the coal mine" about old growth forest health) for fear that it would upset some in the timber industry?

Telling the truth is hard but necessary.

Bob Doppelt

Eugene, Oregon

Bob Doppelt is executive director of the Pacific Rivers Council.

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