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Saving the salmon

THE 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition should be an occasion to restore the salmon runs that impressed and sustained the explorers when they reached the nation's Northwest. Instead, the Bush administration is acting to hinder recovery of many endangered salmon species. The State of Oregon and environmentalists should press their suit to compel the federal government to abide by the Endangered Species Act and protect the fish and their habitat.

A major obstacle to salmon recovery is a system of four dams on the Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia. Oregon and the National Wildlife Federation have sued to get the federal government to take whatever steps are needed, including removal of the dams, to bring the salmon back. At the end of last month the administration ruled out dam removal as an option. This is a change from the position of the Clinton administration, which said dam removal should be considered.

In another blow last month to restoring salmon stocks, the Bush administration proposed to eliminate restrictions on commercial development for millions of acres in Northern California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington that had been designated "critical habitat" for the fish. The areas losing protection do not have significant salmon populations, but if the fish is ever to come back in even a fraction of the numbers witnessed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, much of this habitat will have to be pristine enough to sustain the fish.

To offer salmon some chance of survival, the administration is calling for further measures to get them around the dams. But the existing system of trucking and barging fish around the dams at the expense of taxpayers and electric utility customers has not led to return rates that can remove the salmon from endangered status, much less yield the numbers that would permit fishing. On its current course, the federal government stands to violate a treaty promise to Northwestern tribes that they could harvest river fish.

At a time when fossil fuels are worsening global warming, it is difficult to propose the elimination of a hydroelectric source of power. But the Snake River dams provide a tiny percentage of the region's capacity (the Columbia River dams provide much more), and the cheapness of the electricity encourages residential consumption that is substantially greater than the national average. Conservation measures could easily make up for the lost hydroelectric power.

The dams and loss of habitat are not the only threats to the region's salmon. But they are ones that are within government's ability to remedy without significant economic harm. Lewis and Clark did not open up the Northwest to see its resources destroyed. 

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