Salmon: the Clinton-Babbitt train wreck


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The salmon win one.

In 1991, at the Citizens' Salmon Congress in Hood River, Ore., Michelle DeHart of the Fish Passage Center spoke eloquently - again - about the death of salmon. The center is the tribal and Northwest states' office that monitors the Columbia River, requesting changes in hydropower operations to aid salmon migration. Its requests are routinely ignored by the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dams.

The Bonneville Power Administration, the agency that markets electricity from the dams, regularly tries to muzzle Michelle. She knows and says as well as anyone how the eight federal dams and reservoirs slaughter salmon, and what must be done to change that.

Her message at the salmon congress was simple: Stop tinkering with the federal hydrosystem; only major overhaul will help Snake and Columbia River salmon.

On March 28, 1994, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh said the same thing. He carries more clout than Michelle, the states, the tribes, and the fish. Still, I believe the Army Corps will try to ignore him, too, and that BPA and its preferred clients will try to dodge his ruling.

Have you heard of "the federal family'? The notion is that federal agencies should speak with one voice on large matters of policy. The spotted owl-Northwest forest policy is an example, for on this issue President Clinton pushed federal agencies to end their bickering and speak with one voice.

The federal family for Columbia Basin hydro and salmon includes four cabinet departments and six agencies. One salutary effect of Marsh's decision will be to make it harder to maintain the pretense - the fiction - that those federal agencies have a single voice and are working together to recover Columbia Basin salmon.

There are deep fault lines under the federal family surface, between and among the hydro and fish agencies. The hydro agencies - Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation - are not committed to or concerned about salmon survival, whatever the law, the people, or their public relations machines say. They have been and are in charge of federal Columbia River salmon policy - both the phony single voice (-we will restore salmon with a balanced approach') and the real general thrust (-keep the hydro status quo in place'). They have kept their dominance into the Clinton years via the support of House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., and the status quo politics of both parties.

The fish agencies, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have been bottom dogs for decades, as the condition of salmon testifies. Both have grown more assertive since Snake River salmon were listed as endangered in 1992. But the Fisheries Service's assertiveness, under "new" leadership installed at Speaker Foley's behest, has been timid and tied closely to hydrosystem convenience rather than the needs of salmon.

Judge Marsh has now precisely identified that hydro-first, salmon-second bias within the Fisheries Service, and he has ruled key underpinnings of it illegal. This gives more leverage to good people in the agency and makes it harder for Fisheries Service leaders to meet their patrons' desire that they rock the boat as little as possible.

It gives more leverage to those in the Interior Department - many in the Fish and Wildlife Service, some in the Bureau of Reclamation, and perhaps in the Bureau of Indian Affairs - who want to speak louder on Columbia salmon but have been muted by Bruce Babbitt's decision to avoid the issue as much as possible. Federal trust responsibility for Columbia Basin Indian tribes, in regard to salmon, has been as invisible under Clinton/Babbitt as under Bush/Lujan.

The judge's decision should widen some rifts among the hydro agencies. So far the Army Corps has done next to nothing for salmon at its eight mainstem dams while the Bureau of Reclamation has made - by its lights - major and continuing changes at its upstream reservoirs to provide more flows for salmon. Perhaps the bureau will begin at least privately to ask whether the Corps' stonewalling of any structural modifications at its dams is in the best interest of the federal family.

Those tracking salmon action in court know that internal dispute among BPA and other federal lawyers in Idaho's lawsuit contributed to a poor federal performance in this case. (BPA, though not a plaintiff in Idaho's suit, is not shy of asserting its alpha role within the family.)

As litigation continues, perhaps Janet Reno's Justice Department will consider asserting itself with a focus on the law rather than hydro system self-interest.

My guess is the family feud will intensify, but that hydro agencies, clients and patrons will be able to keep the lid on yet longer. The federal family will maintain the fiction and keep hydrosystem convenience largely in the saddle. BPA and the Army Corps are as dug in on hydro-salmon as the Forest Service was on timber-spotted owl; they are institutionally incapable of telling salmon truth and obeying salmon law.

Judge Marsh will have to hit them more and harder before he gets their attention.

Unless ... the overarching player I haven't mentioned intervenes to force change. But I don't think the White House will at this point. Pretending there is a federal commitment to Columbia Basin salmon, while letting the hydro agencies roll on behind that pretense, is a whole lot easier than leadership in the face of Tom Foley, et al.

Where does that leave salmon advocates - both the guerrillas within the agencies and those of us without? I think we must find the shortest path to explosion, by legal and political means. Fomenting gridlock and chaos does not sound responsible, but I think it is responsible - to the fish. No one else is paying much attention to them.

A final word for observers of this issue. You will know something real is happening for the fish only by one event: an end or sharp reduction in juvenile salmon barging. Only when Judge Marsh, or the White House, or the people (I am sadly convinced it will not be the Fisheries Service) force the hydro agencies to leave salmon in the river will the major overhaul Judge Marsh says is needed be under way.

Barging is the linchpin of the status quo.

Pat Ford is Idaho staffer for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, 1516 Melrose, Suite 200, Seattle, WA 98122.

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