Writers on the Range: A judge is poised to pull down some dams
When we last checked in on the saga of Lonesome Larry, it was 1991, and he was the only sockeye salmon to return to Redfish Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness. Since then, about 50 of his hatchery-reared offspring have made it back to their grandfather’s home waters. That’s roughly five fish per year, give or take a fish, at a cost to taxpayers of a cool $500,000 per fish, give or take a few bucks. That’s a reminder that meddling with the natural order of things is not cheap. Such was the state of the salmon wars in 2005. That Spring, federal district Judge James Redden, in Portland, Ore., tossed out the latest salmon recovery plan proposed by the Bush administration on the grounds that it was, in his words, “an exercise in cynicism.”The Bush plan sought to take dam removal off the table by defining the impoundments on the Snake and Columbia rivers as pre-existing features of the natural landscape. Struggling to contain his anger, Redden ruled that the government’s so-called recovery efforts had been “made sick” with political squabbling, so much so that its latest effort violated the Endangered Species Act on four counts. The judge then ordered the Bonneville Power Administration to spill water from the dams to help juvenile salmon reach the sea. Industry officials and their Republican followers instantly predicted doom for the salmon and rate hikes, to the tune of $46 million, for consumers. This “activist” judge, they cried, was out of control. The drawdown hysteria generated by politicians such as Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., turned out to be far off the mark as juvenile fish counts soared that summer and rate hikes vanished. But Sen. Craig was not about to let a good deed go unpunished. As the National Hydropower Associations “Legislator of the Year,” in 2002, Craig attached a rider to a water bill in Congress that was startling in its cynicism: It de-funded the Fish Passage Center, the agency responsible for keeping track of endangered salmon stocks. In other words, if you can’t skew the science to fit the political needs of your constituents, then kill the agency collecting embarrassing data. To the good fortune of science, fishermen, and anyone else who wants salmon to continue returning to the Columbia River a century hence, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February “that BPA’s decision to transfer the functions of the Fish Passage Center … was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law” and ordered the agency to resume its job. Now, Judge Redden has given the Bush administration a final chance to redeem itself, and to save the salmon. As the one man in America with the legal authority to take charge of the river’s management, Redden has given White House officials fair warning that if they fail to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, he will step into the river, so to speak, and take the fish by the gills. Judge Redden has put all options, including dam removal, back on the table. Meanwhile, his detractors are trying a last-ditch attack, accusing Redden of bias. As the court awaits the denouement in this theater of the absurd, I’m reminded that the great U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall believed a republic administered by common men serving their own self-interests was doomed to fail. The republic would only survive the tempests of time if it was run by enlightened men willing to enforce laws and defend principles, even when they ran counter to their economic and political self-interests. Against that backdrop, the battle over salmon has little to do with actual fish counts. This is a contest between men and women defending enlightened principles of co-existence and sustainability, pitted against the “votaries to mammon,” in the words of former president John Adams. Marshall and Redden lifted their gavels knowing full well that God has given us torments greater than hurricanes, plagues, and tsunamis. To the great peril of all living things, she has given us each other. Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation. He writes about environmental issues in Corvallis, Ore.Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation. He writes about environmental issues in Corvallis, Ore.
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