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NW Fishletter #262, May 28, 2009

[3] Obama Officials Get Crash Course In New Salmon Plan

Several high-ranking members of the Obama Administration came out West earlier this week to hear from scientists and sovereigns involved in the latest plan to operate federal dams and recover ESA-listed salmon and steelhead. The public was not invited.

On Tuesday, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), as well as administration officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior, met in Portland with representatives of the governors of the four Pacific Northwest states and representatives of eight Indian tribes of the Columbia Basin.

Armed with a series of questions that could have been written by plaintiffs in the latest litigation over the salmon plan, they met with regional scientists in the morning, and spent an hour with their own agency scientists, who briefed them on their newest research.

Several attendees said the questions were more policy-based than simple straight forward questions about the science, but issues like the potential breaching of lower Snake dams and drawdowns were not mentioned at all in the science session.

The six questions also echoed parts of BiOp judge James Redden's May 18 "guidance" letter to the new administration. One asked for views on what other actions and decision-making framework could be implemented if the current plan "does not yield the expected benefits."

Another question asked for input on the importance of habitat restoration, especially in the tributaries and estuary, and whether the BiOp was specific enough about future actions in this arena. "Please provide your view of the role of habitat restoration programs and the methodology in the BiOp and what additional actions could be taken by the Action Agencies regarding habitat restoration."

But the question and answer format was quickly discarded as an appropriate approach to the meetings, which some participants said were called on too short notice.

The afternoon session heard from representatives of states and tribes, where pro-BiOp participants far outnumbered critics Oregon, the Nez Perce and Spokane Tribes.

Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the meeting was worthwhile, and was, as billed, a listening session, where each sovereign (four states, eight tribes) recited long-held positions on salmon recovery. Three of CRITFC's four member tribes support the new BiOp.

Hudson said, though the meeting wasn't intended to serve as a head count, nine of the parties expressed support for the BiOp or the collaborative effort. "Each group, in a nutshell, said if we were left to write a BiOp in seclusion, sure, you'd have nine different looking BiOps, but the Basin doesn't work that way."

One part of the new BiOp that did come in for a measure of criticism, said Hudson, was the way adaptive management is incorporated into it. Some BiOp supporters say the governance issue needs to be more clearly spelled out. But, the B-word (breaching) never came up in the afternoon session, either.

Montana representative Bruce Measure said that Lubchenco and Sutley heard one speaker after another describe their positions in the two-and-one-half year collaborative process ordered by the judge, which led to hundreds of technical and policy meetings as the new BiOp was developed. He hoped that the meeting deterred plaintiffs' characterization of the new plan as simply something put together by the "Bush Administration."

According to participants, the new administration officials listened intently, but were quiet for the most part. They had already heard privately from fellow Democrats in the Northwest political delegation, who reportedly had strongly urged them to leave the plan alone. As one long-time player in the salmon wars said, the delegation's message to the administration was clear. "Don't think you can unravel this and fix it."

The officials released a statement on Tuesday afternoon. "This was, for all of us, an important and constructive meeting that allowed us to gain further insight regarding the biological opinion on hydropower operations now before the court. While we have already received a lot of public input on the issue, this was another opportunity to listen and was not intended to supplement the administrative record. This meeting allowed us to better understand the science of salmon recovery and the sovereigns' individual views.

"While the meeting was already planned, its importance was heightened by Judge Redden's recent letter to the parties in this litigation. We share the court's concern for a final outcome that respects the law, the science and the salmon. 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.

"While it's certainly too early for any of us to reach a judgment about the biological opinion, this meeting was a crucial step in arriving at that judgment. We are grateful for the candor and concern all the participants showed at the meeting."

On Wednesday, they were off to visit Lower Monumental Dam on the lower Snake River, and Thursday Lubchenco planned to be in Seattle on other NOAA business.

Measure said the administration is not obligated to respond to the court at all, Lubchenco and Sutley's judgment may or may not be included in the Justice Department's response to Judge Redden's May 18 letter that is expected by the end of June. -B. R.

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