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Feds fact-finding on dams and salmon

Meetings behind closed doors

Jeff Barnard Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Two top members of President Barack Obama’s environmental team are in the Northwest this week, listening but pointedly not speaking about the tense conflict between salmon and hydroelectric dams in the Columbia Basin.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco and White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley attended closed-door sessions in Portland on Tuesday with scientists, government officials and Indian tribes, and were scheduled today to tour one of the lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington that conservationists and some Indian tribes want removed to restore endangered salmon.

“The purpose of this trip here is to listen and learn,” Lubchenco spokesman Justin Kenney said from North Carolina.

Afterward, Sutley issued a written statement saying the session helped them better understand the science behind the Bush administration’s plan for balancing salmon against dams, known as a biological opinion, which a federal judge is considering under the Endangered Species Act.

“We share the court’s concern for a final outcome that respects the law, the science and the salmon,” the statement read. “It’s only by recovering these protected salmon that once again fishermen, tribal and non-tribal alike, and all of us concerned about the environment will be able to properly enjoy the Northwest’s bounty.”

Sent out to parties to the talks last week, the administration’s questions closely mirror those raised by U.S. District Judge James Redden in a letter this month to lawyers for all sides as he moves closer to a decision on whether the Bush administration’s 2008 plan for balancing salmon against dams – known as a biological opinion – violates the Endangered Species Act.

Considerations include:

• Is the standard for success embraced by the Bush administration appropriate?

•Does the plan adequately take into account changes to rivers and the ocean expected under global warming?

• Are habitat improvements in tributaries and estuaries – the backbone of the plan – enough to overcome the damage caused by the dams?

• What other steps could be taken to make dam operations less harmful to salmon?

• Are government agencies doing enough to overcome problems caused by fishing and hatcheries?

• What steps should be taken if this plan fails?

That last question confronts the prospect of breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington, which provide barge access to farms and mills in Idaho, as well as enough electricity to power Seattle, but are blamed for sending Snake River salmon populations into a tailspin.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, the only Northwest governor still signed on to a lawsuit challenging the 2008 biological opinion, welcomed the Obama administration’s decision to take a new look at the science.

“We believe that a re-look at the science that underpins the 2008 biological opinion is exactly the right thing to do, because it goes to the heart of Oregon’s concerns about the viability and defensibility of this biological opinion,” said Mike Carrier, Kulongoski’s natural resources adviser.

Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little warned the administration that pulling the 2008 biological opinion “will send a strong message that the Beltway knows best and strike a major blow to any subsequent calls for collaboration,” according to his prepared text.

Columbia Basin treaty tribes — all but one of which has embraced the biological opinion in return for salmon restoration funding – focused their comments on broader salmon issues, said Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission spokesman Charles Hudson.

Hudson said they want to establish a “sound working relationship” with the Obama administration.

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