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Know the West

The salmon's last best hope


If ever there were a news story that supported physicist Hugh Everett's theory of parallel universes, surely the debacle over the looming extinction of Columbia and Snake river salmon is just that story.

While Everett was a doctoral student at Princeton University, in 1957, he devised an elaborate mathematical proof for the premise that an infinite number of universes exist, and events that do not happen in one universe may very well happen in a neighboring, or parallel, reality. His "many worlds" theory was instantly recognized by the scientific community as a breakthrough in quantum theory. Sounds a little woo-woo, but it shouldn't. It's like most marriages: Both members are simultaneously living inside movies (with different subtitles) running in the same theater.

This is where the salmon come in, or rather, the politicians and stake holders who are fighting over the best ways to prevent the salmon from going extinct. After Federal District Court Judge James Redden met with all the stakeholders in his courtroom in Portland, Ore., in March 2009, the theory of dueling realities was proven once again.

Redden, the judge responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act, commented that all sides seemed to be "very close" to a rescue plan for the fish. But, he warned, several critical elements were still missing from the plan, and no biological opinion -- a scientific master plan -- would make it through his court until those omissions were corrected.

Recently, Redden repeated that challenge in a letter to stakeholders. Government scientists, he wrote, relied too heavily on statistical sleight of hand to support their argument that endangered fish are trending toward recovery. He also said that removing four dams on the lower Snake River had to be included in the recovery plan in case everything else failed.

"All of us know that aggressive action is necessary to save this vital resource," he concluded, "and now is the time to make that happen."

Fax machines across the region came to life. "Federal law doesn't allow dam removal and no Democrat-politician-turned-activist-judge can rewrite the law," shot back Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. (Did you ever notice that any judge who disagrees with a Republican is automatically branded an activist?)

The Portland Oregonian's editorial board described Redden's letter as puzzling: "The letter is strongly critical of the key strategy in the plan to focus on habitat improvements to offset the harm that federal power-generating dams inflict on fish." Yet the Oregonian ignores the fact that improving habitat only works only when there's a dramatic shift in the manmade conditions that created the problem in the first place. The newspaper also neglected to mention that Redden has been issuing the same challenge to stakeholders since he threw out the first Bush biological opinion in 2004. In fact, precious little has changed since the first Clinton biological opinion was thrown out in 2000.

Thanks to the politicians and stakeholders who have resisted politically painful solutions, the salmon are now a decade closer to extinction. The population counts of endangered fish continue to fall while the underlying science repeats the same axiom: Native fish thrive once dams are removed.

In contrast to the Oregonian, the Idaho Statesman newspaper, which sits in the lap of the second reddest state in the Lower ‘48, conducted a yearlong study of the Snake River dams a decade ago. What it found was shocking: The dams cost the region tens of thousands of jobs. Moreover, economists who studied the river concluded that the dams produce less than 5 percent of the region's power needs, do nothing for flood control, irrigate only a handful of big farms, and subsidize transportation costs for Idaho wheat farmers.

In other words, the dams serve the political interests of the politically powerful few to the detriment of the many. The dams, wrote the editor of the Idaho Statesman, flunk the common sense test.

That's where Judge Redden wakes up every morning. He is the one person in this entire constellation of many worlds who is legally obligated to use science and common sense to protect the fishes' universe. He knows native salmon cannot simply relocate to another river; the Columbia-Snake corridor is their only option. And Redden is their last best hope.

Whatever else might be said, this judge has done his job with admirable patience, clarity and detachment. For the sake of the fish and the 500 other species that depend on this vital resource for their own survival, I hope he has the resolve to stay the course and see the job through.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory and lives in Corvallis, Oregon.