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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lane Madsen: Starting a conversation or picking cherries?

Making accusations of cherry picking while serving carefully picked cherries of your own is a clear sign of bias. But while a journalist has an obligation to present all sides, a columnist can choose to either highlight issues for debate or just preach to a personal choir.

Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment of the Washington Policy Center, recently found himself the target of a choirmaster after an op-ed he wrote pointing out how past environmental predictions don’t track with current data.

Myers said in a Zoom interview this week that as part of former Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland’s executive team in the 2000s, he understands the type of information needed and the uncertainties of making policy in the legislature and at the agency level. “No issue is ever 100% one side and zero the other side. There’s going to be data that says you’re wrong or indicates there’s another side, and that’s worth acknowledging.”

Twenty years ago the environmental community was trying to stop Department of Natural Resources programs of thinning and prescribed fire, now they’re admitting the need to do those things. “That’s an issue where the constant recitation of good science and good information has won the day. Maybe belatedly, but it has. Just have to keep at it,” said Myers.

Public opinion tends to be driven by emotion as much as data. Debates over salmon restoration have been ruffling fins in the Pacific Northwest ever since the first dams were built. Snake River dam impact on salmon runs was just one example in the June 25 op-ed (“Environmental groups perfect art of scare tactics”) which Myers used to illustrate the hyperbolic state of environmental debate.

Scientists have been modeling salmon return for decades. The February 23, 2000, edition of Northwest Hydropower News referred to statements from Seattle-based Save Our Wild Salmon asserting “some scientists predict extinction of those runs by 2017 if the dams aren’t removed.”

We are five years past dire predictions of extinction. Salmon are still here, and annual salmon returns have recently shown a slight increase. Whether this is a sign of long-term recovery or not is a debatable question. That the models were wrong is fact, and inconvenient for those convinced dam removal is essential regardless of the trade-offs.

Michelle DeHart, director of the federal Fish Passage Center for over 30 years, is a longtime proponent of dam removal. Idaho Sen. Larry Craig pulled funding for her agency in 2005 for crossing the line from technical investigation to political advocacy. DeHart was extensively quoted in last Sunday’s political column (“Misleading claim about salmon twists statistics,” Shawn Vestal, July 11) as having “debunked” Myers work. Omitted was mention of the September 2020 peer-reviewed article in the online Journal Fish and Fisheries which Myers has cited in previous essays on salmon recovery.

The work by British Columbia scientist David Welch and his co-authors studying salmon returns from Oregon to Alaska has not been debunked. They found similar return patterns in both dammed and free-flowing rivers and concluded enhancing survival is not all about dams. DeHart strongly objected to the paper, and it was referred to the designated referee, the Independent Scientific Advisory Board of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The ISAB said conclusions about effects of specific freshwater management actions in any single watershed were premature, requiring assumptions about ocean conditions for specific salmon runs. However, the ISAB agreed with observations that the salmon return “values for the Columbia system are not dissimilar from those of other systems, including those with no dams,” and that the impact of ocean conditions on salmon survival will “affect the realization of long-term population level benefits of freshwater management actions.”

In other words, we need to know more about ocean habitat before judging effectiveness of additional changes to freshwater habitat. Dam removal is not a slam-dunk option and data on unexpectedly higher return rates are relevant to the discussion.

So is economics. According to Myers, who sits on the board of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, the cost of removing just the four lower Snake River dams would absorb 300 years worth of state salmon recovery money. “It’s not that we can’t buy something for the money, but is it worth it,” said Myers.

As part of a free-market focused think tank, sometimes Myers’ writing is aimed at informing public opinion and sometimes it’s directed at policy. Agree or disagree on the conclusions, but his arguments are based on data, not personalities or politics.

“In 2021, attitude completely trumps data,” said Myers. “On both sides all you have to do is act arrogant and righteous and the science and data become ancillary. That’s a bipartisan problem.”

Be skeptical of fear-mongering, mudslinging and cherry picking. Follow the scientific method not “the science,” and ask more questions. We need environmentalists, scientists, agency personnel, journalists and citizens open to where the data leads.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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