Salmon Justice

An interview with U.S. District Judge Jim Redden, who’s given uncooperative federal agencies clear warning: Submit a viable salmon restoration plan for the Snake/Columbia River Basin, or face the possible breaching of four major dams.

  • BEN GARRISON
  • FEDERAL CAUCUS
  • BEN GARRISON
 

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Redden’s wife shares her husband’s sense of humor, and the dark-haired couple became known in social circles for their parody of President and Mrs. Kennedy. “Since they were both from Massachusetts, they could have that Massachusetts accent when they wanted to,” says former state Rep. Ed Whelan, laughing at the memory. “He would take off with those long ‘a’s’ and she joined right in. It was almost like they rehearsed it.”

Redden’s sense of humor helped him win over adversaries. His easy-going manner made him a catalyst for compromises, including landmark legislation guaranteeing public access to Oregon’s beaches. Redden also was well respected by both parties for his intellect and accessibility and was elected House minority leader during his final term in 1969.

“You could always talk to Jim,” says former Oregon State Bar Association president Art Johnson. “He had straight answers. He wasn’t intimidated by lobbyists. He made up his own mind.”

Democrats drafted Redden to run for state treasurer in 1972 after their nominee was disqualified for an earlier campaign violation. Redden won that race and ran for governor two years later.

“I lost in the primary, thank God,” Redden says. “It’s a great thing for your vanity and ego to be governor. But people expect so much, and you can deliver so little.”

He was elected state attorney general in 1976 and made his mark as a reformer. Redden ordered investigations into mismanagement and wrongdoing that led to the ouster of the Marion County district attorney — who was later prosecuted for mishandling expense accounts — and the head of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. His probe of state-licensed nursing homes prompted passage of extensive reform legislation. And Redden’s investigation of a state mental hospital in Pendleton sent attendants to jail for abusing patients.

Redden was resisting entreaties to make another run for governor in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench with the support of Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield.

“We all missed the chance to have a great governor,” U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner says.

Fishing lessons

Many consider Redden’s work as a federal judge impeccable. “I’ve been grading his papers for 30 years,” says Alfred T. Goodwin, senior judge — and former chief justice — of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “He will be remembered as a judge who cared about doing good legal work and didn’t care if a decision was popular or unpopular.”

Redden had his first taste of salmon issues as attorney general, inheriting contentious litigation over Indian fishing claims on the Columbia River. He broke with both his predecessor and Washing-ton state’s attorney general by acknowledging that the tribes had valid treaty fishing rights. The result was a first in the long-running dispute, says Douglas Nash, who represented the Umatilla Tribes and then the Nez Perce in the case — a settlement that attempted to give everyone a portion of the salmon harvest. “His predecessor would have no discussions with the tribes — it was full-blown war,” Nash says. “Redden reached out. It saved horrendous amounts of litigation, time and money.”

The current Columbia/Snake salmon litigation is part of a controversy dating to the end of World War II. In 1945, Congress authorized construction of the four lower Snake River dams to make Lewiston, Idaho — 465 miles inland — a port. At that time, Idaho produced half of the chinook salmon in the Columbia River Basin. Fisheries agencies, concerned the dams would annihilate Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs, immediately began a long battle to stop the projects.

Dams kill salmon and steelhead in multiple ways. Of course, fish often die while traveling through a dam’s hydroelectric turbines. Equally significant: Juvenile salmon evolved to ride the surge in spring runoff to the Pacific Ocean in two to three weeks. Reservoirs slow that journey to as much as three months, interfering with the salmon’s time-sensitive biological transformation from a freshwater fish to a saltwater fish. Reservoirs also make salmon more vulnerable to predators and increase water temperatures to the point of killing juvenile salmon migrating to the sea as well as adults returning to spawn. In addition, warmer water means lethal fish diseases.

Beyond the environmental arena, there were questions about the fiscal wisdom of the four lower Snake River dams. The dams do not provide flood control, they benefit few irrigators, and they generate only a small percentage of the power consumed by the Pacific North-west. But pork-barrel dams have a history of trumping science and economics in the American West, and, after an arduous battle, the four dams were constructed between 1960 and 1975.

Salmon and steelhead runs almost immediately plummeted. In 1991, Snake River sockeye became the first of 13 salmon and steelhead stocks to hit the endangered species list, forcing the federal government to come up with a formal plan to modify dam operations to stop killing the fish. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game successfully sued over the first recovery plan in 1993. U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh threw out the biological opinion, as recovery plans are called, and refereed ensuing battles until he took senior status in 2000 and relinquished the case.

Redden agreed to take over. His experience with Columbia River issues gave him extensive knowledge of both the science and the thankless nature of the task ahead.

“He watched Judge (Robert) Belloni and Judge (George) Boldt take tremendous abuse over the Columbia River Indian fishing cases,” Judge Panner says. “And he volunteered to take it. He felt it was his duty.”

Indeed, after Belloni and Boldt issued rulings in the late ’60s and early ’70s upholding the Indians’ right to fish the Columbia, bumper stickers reviled them with slogans such as “Slice Belloni, Screw Boldt.” Boldt was hanged in effigy so often that removing the mock corpses dangling from outside various federal courthouses “became a mundane duty of the U.S. Marshals,” Charles Wilkinson notes in his book, Messages from Frank’s Landing. A sign looped around the neck of one declared “A Dead Boldt is a Good Boldt.”

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