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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By the time Redden took the gavel in the latest litigation, the list of plaintiffs contesting the federal government’s failing salmon plans ranged from conservation groups to commercial and sport fishermen to Native American tribes. Today, the pressure for genuine salmon recovery has become even more intense. Only three sockeye — all hatchery fish — made the 1,000-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to Redfish Lake in central Idaho this fall, meaning wild Snake River sockeye are essentially extinct. Mayors of small Idaho towns that lost their salmon-based tourism revenue after the last Snake River dam was completed are raising their voices. West Coast commercial fishermen are furious over fishing restrictions driven by the threatened and endangered Columbia/Snake runs.

“Dams kill the majority of the Columbia and Snake river salmon,” says Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association. “And yet fishermen are chronically punished for the damage the dams inflict.”

Don Chapman, a well-respected fisheries scientist who long opposed dam removal as a consultant to the energy industry, now calls breaching the four lower Snake River dams an imperative. Chapman no longer believes barging and trucking juvenile salmon around the dams is effective, because wild salmon populations have continued to plummet despite the effort. And the prospect of continued global warming — which could further increase river temperatures and stress cold-water-loving salmon — makes the deaths inflicted by dams that much more harmful to the fish population as a whole. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who says he erred by not more aggressively pushing for Snake River dam removal during his tenure, is actively campaigning for dam breaching.

“We have spent billions of dollars trying to rationalize our way around the reality of those dams,” Babbitt said in a recent tour of the Pacific Northwest. “The game is about up.”

Midnight riders

A trim 77-year-old in khaki slacks and deep blue shirt, Redden stands 5 feet 9 inches tall; he has thinning gray hair, large glasses and a boyish grin that fills his face. The windows in the east wall of his chambers look toward Naito Park, Redden’s favorite jogging spot. He started running at age 48, when, weighing 200 pounds and smoking two packs a day, he found he could barely walk up a flight of stairs. Despite his healthy habits, he doesn’t care to eat salmon.

“If it’s oily — and the good stuff is — it doesn’t agree with me,” Redden says. “If you plank it, grill it, and put enough ketchup and beer on it, it’s OK.”

Redden is unusual among federal judges in his willingness to speak to the press. His son Jim, the journalist, believes his father’s experience in the Legislature, back in the days before press aides and professional staff ran interference, left him comfortable with the media. “I got used to having my name in the paper when I was in politics,” the judge says with a smile. “And I got sick of it before I got out.”

Redden has repeatedly rejected the federal government’s salmon recovery plans, most notably in regard to the Bush administration’s insistence that the dams are a natural part of the landscape — a position that would allow the federal government to ignore the lethal effects of dams on salmon. He is mystified by such an approach. “The New York Times said I was flabbergasted when I saw their plans,” Redden says. “Well, I was.”

And a bit frustrated.

“If you really want to do something for the whole Columbia Basin and the salmon and the dams and the irrigators, you have scientists sit down and figure it out,” Redden says. “You can’t do it if the announcement is made in advance that it isn’t going to happen.”

The Bush administration has appealed Redden’s ruling that it must address the damage dams inflict on salmon. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon.

Meanwhile, Redden says, “the dams are killing the fish. So we have to mitigate that. That is the big issue.”

Time is of the essence, he adds, a point he’s repeatedly made from the bench.

“The Snake River salmon are truly endangered,” Redden says. “We can’t continue to go in circles.”

For the past three years, Redden has ordered the federal government to spill additional water at eight Snake and Columbia river dams to give juvenile salmon safer passage to the ocean.

“The government has opposed most of what I’ve ordered,” Redden says. “Nobody — not even the court — has been enthusiastic about having the court do these things. But the runs have been pretty good.”

Indeed, Redden’s orders for more spill have definitely increased juvenile salmon survival, government scientists say.

The order also prompted U.S. Sen. Larry Craig — an Idaho Republican who earned the National Hydropower Association’s 2002 “Legislator of the Year” award — to introduce a budget rider that would eliminate funding for the federal agency that tracks salmon migration and mortality through the Columbia/Snake dam system. That rider spawned its own litigation, which is still pending in federal court. If Craig doesn’t like the judge’s rulings this year, he is expected to introduce legislation that would block Redden from enforcing salmon recovery under the Endangered Species Act.

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