A fish tale in the land of Oz

Published in High Country News (hcn.org) March 4, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

ESSAY – By Paul VanDevelder

The most expensive and protracted battle over an endangered species is at last approaching its day of reckoning in Portland, Ore.  Sometime this spring, federal District Court Judge James Redden will decide the terms of a recovery plan for some two dozen endangered salmon stocks in the Columbia River Basin. Like the famous Boldt Decision of 1974, which allowed Indian tribes to continue to harvest salmon, the consequences of the court’s decision are almost certain to be momentous for all stakeholders.

On one side of the battle are conservationists, coastal fishing communities, some state governments and most Indian tribes. All say that they are willing to sacrifice some degree of economic advantage for the sake of saving salmon from extinction.

The other side includes hydropower, aluminum industries, agribusiness, barge operators and a few other states. Basically, this powerful group claims dominion over all species; business, after all, comes first. The adversaries in this struggle represent profoundly different views that mirror deep divisions in our society.

In the middle are the courts, and over the past two decades Judge Redden has learned a thing or two. As fish counts plummeted and billions of taxpayer dollars got flushed out to sea in failed remedies, the judge surely came to understand that political compromise can’t halt the forces that lead to extinction.  Political compromises resolve human contests, but they seem to exert little or no influence over complex ecosystems. Without drastic action, the relentless ticking of the extinction clock continues.

To pull off that miracle — to stop the clock — the authors of the Endangered Species Act wisely placed the responsibility for recovering threatened and endangered species in the hands of what is known as the best available science. If the best science succeeds in pulling these fish stocks back from the brink of extinction, it will be the result of radical, court-ordered measures involving dams and water releases that are certain to be very painful to the business interests.

If the status quo prevails, however, and the fish are allowed to go extinct, you and I and all American taxpayers — by terms of a 1995 treaty with Canada and Indian tribes — will be on the hook for $30 billion in penalties for failing to uphold our end of the bargain.  Either way, the outcome is going to be painful.  The question that doubtless keeps Judge Redden awake at night is simply this: Whatever we do, will there still be fish?

Like the courts and the conservationists, the hydropower and business interests have also learned a thing or two over the past 20 years. When recovery strategies proposed by the conservationists challenge their objectives (which they do about 90 percent of the time), they’ve learned to compensate for losses in the courts by politicizing science.

The Clinton and Bush administrations did just that when they wrote their biological opinions, or ‘bi-ops,” supposedly science-based blueprints for recovery required by the Endangered Species Act. All four efforts were thrown out by federal court because all put politics ahead of the fish. Now, it appears that the Obama administration is headed down the same path.

How did this happen?  Well, if you like stories about unscrupulous politicians, you’ve come to the right place.

Despite the president’s dramatic call in 2009 for a “new transparency” in science, his Commerce secretary, former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, and Locke’s protégés from the state of Washington, Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, are all good friends of the aluminum and hydro industries. The Obama bi-op they have adopted as their own is a reconstituted Bush bi-op that was rejected by the court four years ago.

Their influence also tries to reach toward the courts.  Cantwell chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, and holds the purse strings for Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, headed up by Jane Lubchenco, a highly respected zoologist from Oregon State University. Just before Lubchenco was scheduled to travel to Portland for a hearing in Judge Redden’s court, Cantwell and Patty Murray sent aides to meet with her in Washington, D.C. The aides handed Lubchenco instructions to be “discreet” and to “avoid all public meetings and groups that had gone political” in the battle over salmon, according to Freedom of Information Act documents.

This isn’t Judge Redden’s first rodeo.  He is well aware of the behind-the-curtain efforts of Locke, Cantwell, Murray, the powerful Bonneville Power Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service to rig the outcome in favor of the dominionists. So even with all of this politicking and puppeteering as prologue, there is a better-than-even chance that the wizened old judge will finally give the salmon the relief they need: cold, free-flowing water. That could stop the extinction clock, and that truly would be momentous.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire.

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