MIGRATING salmon are the defining icon of the Pacific Northwest. But as attempts to reverse their decline accelerate, salmon also may become the symbol of congressional efforts to change the landmark law designed to prevent extinction of species.
The National Marine Fisheries Service on Jan. 25 releases its ``draft biological opinion'' on actions necessary to save Pacific salmon that migrate up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to Idaho. This is expected to include increased water flows at the expense of hydropower, irrigation, and other commercial activities. It will be followed soon by a detailed ``recovery plan'' as required under the federal Endangered Species Act.
At the same time, however, critics of the Endangered Species Act are pushing for limits on the economic costs such environmental protection can exact.
US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Rep. Lamar Smith, both Republicans from Texas, want a moratorium on new listings of plants and animals under the act. They also want a halt on new designations of ``critical habitat'' and an end to the requirement that federal agencies consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service regarding endangered species.
``Environmental enforcement has become overly zealous, threatening the constitutional principle that ensures private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation, a principle enshrined in our Bill of Rights,'' says Senator Hutchinson.
If adopted, such measures likely would be the first steps toward a more wholesale amending of the 1973 law, now overdue for congressional reauthorization. And given the environmental backlash in a Congress newly led by conservative Republicans, such changes raise questions about the future of species in danger of extinction.
Heading the House task force charged with rewriting the Endangered Species Act is second-term Rep. Richard Pombo (R), a rancher from California's Central Valley and cofounder of the Citizens Land Alliance who ran for election on his opposition to the law.
Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Interior Department, recently said there is ``a clear possibility'' that some species of Pacific Northwest salmon may not be worth the price of recovery.
``There is a cost beyond which you just have to say very regrettably we have to let species or subspecies go extinct,'' he said.
Recent state-level elections have changed the political equation as well. For example, retired Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus (D) fought long and hard for salmon. His successor, Republican Phil Batt, told his party's convention last year, ``Whether it be for a bull trout, salmon, snail, or any other type of plant, bug, or animal, I will not sacrifice Idaho's water!''
The number of Columbia-Basin salmon that power their way upstream past a series of mammoth dams to spawn, as well as the number of offspring who head back out to sea, has dropped dramatically in recent decades: from 15 million a year to fewer than 300,000. Some stocks have dwindled to virtually nothing. Others have dropped so low that extinction is a real threat.
Dams are the most obvious reason. But diversions for farm and industrial purposes, overfishing, and pollution caused by everything from residential development to logging are among the other culprits.
There have been several recent official and special-interest proposals to save salmon.
The Northwest Power Planning Council wants to increase water velocity at times of migration. This would ``flush'' young salmon downstream and out of reservoirs, where they face disease and predators. Established by Congress in 1980, the council has representatives from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
``Save Our Wild Salmon,'' a coalition of 44 environmental, commercial, and sports fishing groups, last week offered another comprehensive plan that increases water flow, restores habitat, removes some dams and changes others, changes hatchery practices, and ends the barging and trucking of young salmon down the Columbia.
The Columbia River Alliance, representing businesses and electric utilities, wants to barge more fish around dams rather than increase water flows at a time of year when reservoirs are being filled to provide generating power later on.
The cost of salmon recovery varies from plan to plan, but it is expected to be several hundred million dollars a year. This translates into a monthly utility rate increase of $2 to $3 per customer.
``We have the lowest electric rates in the whole country,'' says Lorri Bodi of the environmental group American Rivers. ``And we will still have the lowest rates if we add salmon to the bill.''