Recently news broke in Grist of an agreement brokered by the Bush administration and several Northwest tribes affecting endangered salmon, litigation, and dam operations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Now that the dust has settled, here is one view of this deal’s details and implications.


First, it is worth highlighting that this deal came during the same week that a government council decided on unprecedented closures for salmon fishing on the West Coast in response to another precipitous drop in salmon stocks, this time on the Sacramento River.

Salmon populations and coastal communities have suffered under the current administration’s science-free salmon policy. This year’s declines on the Sacramento, like recent declines on the other big salmon rivers — the Klamath and Columbia-Snake — can be traced to harmful dams, habitat destruction, and politically driven management decisions and illegal plans by our federal government.

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So, what will this agreement mean for Columbia Basin populations and the decades-long courtroom battles?

Like most deals, this one delivers things to both parties. For the tribes, it means $1 billion over 10 years for habitat and hatchery projects. The list suggests a series of laudable projects that will have positive impacts on habitat — mainly for healthy salmon populations, with about 25 percent of the funds to go toward imperiled species. In addition, some funding will go toward studying lamprey restoration (which is extremely important to tribal communities) in the Columbia Basin.

And what does the administration get? In exchange for this funding, the feds acquire a very new alliance in the courtroom: the tribes agree to not litigate the administration’s latest salmon plan any further, and to join the administration to “affirmatively support” the current dam operations. This includes submitting official documents supporting the salmon plan. (In January of this year, these same tribes delivered 140 pages of public comment strenuously opposing this administration’s plan for dam operations and its harmful impact on endangered stocks.) With 13 ESA-listed stocks spiraling toward extinction, after more than $8 billion in federal monies and nearly 20 years of litigation, the feds’ approach to salmon protection has proven both very expensive and deeply flawed.

For the next 10 years, the tribes also agree to not advocate for removing the four costly, outdated lower Snake River dams — the one measure that most scientists insist is needed to protect salmon from extinction. For example, up to 92 percent of juvenile Snake River salmon are killed by federal dams before they ever reach the ocean.

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The agreement is unlikely to end the litigation over the operation and existence of certain dams in the Snake River. While it changes the mix of the litigants and ensures that the tribes will not publicly advocate for their previously long-held, science-based recovery measures, the deal does not protect our most endangered wild salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers. With less than 25 percent of the funding going toward those stocks, it is clear that this deal wasn’t intended to address the actual ESA issues facing the Northwest. With this deal, the administration shows it is more focused on solving their courtroom crisis than solving the real, on-the-ground crises facing endangered salmon and endangered fishing communities.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Solutions exist that are based both in good science and responsible fiscal policy. In order to get there, however, it looks like we are depending on leadership from Congress starting today and a new administration in 2009.

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