WASHINGTON – The surprising fall of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, removes a longtime obstacle to efforts by Democrats and environmentalists to promote salmon recovery in Northwest rivers.
Craig, who was removed from leadership posts on the Senate Appropriations and Energy committees after a sex scandal, is known as one the most powerful voices in Congress on behalf of the timber and power industries. Environmentalists have fought him for years on issues from endangered salmon to grazing on public lands.
Now Senate Democrats, exercising their slim majority, have waded into two contentious issues – both related to Snake River salmon.
First, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asked federal regulators to require passage for salmon and steelhead for relicensing of the Hells Canyon Complex, a series of dams on the Snake River between Oregon and Idaho.
Reid says the passage would allow salmon to return to their historical spawning grounds in northern Nevada, where the shimmering fish used to run thick nearly a century ago.
Meanwhile, Sen. Maria Cantwell, of Washington, has asked colleagues to undo Craig’s bid to use a federal spending bill to dictate water flow for Snake River fish.
Salmon advocates were thrilled at the actions of the two western Democrats, which they say could go a long way toward protecting and restoring salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin, which spans Washington state, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming.
“The only way we protect this fish and ensure they don’t go extinct is if folks stand up now and take some leadership on these issues. I think that’s what Senator Reid is doing and for that matter Senator Cantwell too,” said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for the Save Our Wild Salmon, an advocacy group.
Under language inserted by Craig this summer, the Interior Department would be directed to implement “without further delay” a controversial Bush administration biological opinion on the Upper Snake River issued in 2005.
U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled last year that the opinion did not do enough to promote recovery of threatened salmon, violating the Endangered Species Act. He ordered federal officials to submit a new salmon recovery plan by the end of October.
Salmon advocates say Craig’s language would nullify Redden’s ruling and direct officials to rely on a discredited policy that does not provide enough water to allow salmon to thrive and shifts costs for recovery of the threatened fish to the states.
In a Sept. 19 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Appropriations Interior subcommittee, Cantwell said Craig’s action could undermine the ongoing planning process for salmon and disrupt a judicial order.
“In addition, it could further threaten salmon in the Columbia-Snake River Basin, and the communities that depend on them, by delaying the development of a legally valid” policy, Cantwell wrote.
Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Craig, accused Cantwell and Reid of meddling in Idaho issues.
“Basically the bottom line is Larry Craig is out to protect Idaho water,” Whiting said, adding that Craig believes that the 2005 opinion rejected by the court is one that will “balance all the interests of water issues in the region, for irrigation, power use and for salmon.”
Democrats control both chambers of Congress “and I’m sure they are looking for opportunities to get their way,” Whiting added. “Whether they are taking advantage of Senator Craig’s current state I don’t know.”
Craig is expected to remain as Idaho’s senior senator at least until a Minnesota judge rules on his effort to withdraw a guilty plea in a men’s room sex sting.
As long as he is in office, Craig “will represent Idaho’s interests,” Whiting said. “Natural resource issues and salmon and water are things he’s worked at for 27 years.”