Salmon struggling upriver toward spawning grounds are an inspiring symbol of determination and natural intelligence. Yet they are clueless as to the major political net they now find themselves in.
The federal government has just issued rules designed to protect migrating fish threatened with extinction over a wide range of the West from California's Central Valley to Washington State's Puget Sound. These regulations, governing everything from storm sewer runoff to building construction to farm irrigation, undoubtedly will affect millions of homeowners and businesses up and down the West Coast.
At the same time, the related debate over whether to breach four major dams in the Columbia River Basin - structures seen by many scientists as the major culprits in the sharp decline of salmon - has become a national political issue that could impact this fall's elections, including the race for the White House as well as seats in Congress.
George W. Bush, campaigning in Washington State this week, says a flat "no" to dam busting. Al Gore was out here recently to announce federal protection for the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia. Mr. Gore also said that, if elected, he would convene an environmental summit on salmon (as President Clinton did on Northwest timber and the spotted owl immediately after his election). Gore, who remains noncommittal on breaching the four dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington State, the Columbia's main tributary, is seen as vulnerable on the issue since he needs to carry the Pacific Northwest.
Meanwhile, prominent political and editorial voices from around the country are weighing in on an issue that for most Americans - so far, at least - has been of no more interest than how long to leave the succulent pink fish on the barbecue.
The federal regulations issued this week are designed to protect 14 runs of salmon and steelhead (an ocean-migrating fish related to trout) that cover 160,000 square miles of state and private lands in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California.
These new regulations, required under the federal Endangered Species Act, are likely to be challenged in federal court by environmentalists and - at the other end of the political spectrum - by property-rights advocates. Still, there is little argument that the number of wild salmon (not to be confused with hatchery fish) has plummeted in recent decades - to the point of near-extinction for some.
"Watersheds up and down the coast are producing fewer and fewer fish as rivers continue to be channelized, paved over, dewatered, polluted, denuded of mature vegetation, and cut off from fish altogether by dams, diversions, temporary berms, and thousands of road culverts," says this week's announcement by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
There is both stick and carrot in the new regulations. They flatly prohibit any activity that harms or kills salmon populations listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. This includes indirect harm, such as the degradation of fish habitat in the many tributaries of major West Coast rivers.
But the new rules also give state and local officials the opportunity to craft their own conservation programs and thereby avoid direct federal control. "These exemptions will reduce red tape and create powerful incentives for state or local conservation programs which can benefit the fish enormously," says William Stelle, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service's regional office in Seattle.
As with all major environmental issues, the need is to balance protection of wildlife with economic interests.
"Decisionmakers must understand that among its many benefits to Northwest livelihood, the Columbia River provides almost $30 billion annually to the Northwest's economy," warns the Columbia River Alliance, which represents business interests dependent on the river's hydropower and transportation. "It is the second largest navigational transportation system in the United States," the group continues. It adds that tens of thousands of jobs are dependent on river-related commerce, nearly 75 percent of the region's electric supply comes from Columbia River hydropower, and more than $5 billion worth of crops are produced annually on 8 million irrigated acres in the Northwest.
During the past 15 years, the federal government has spent some $3 billion on salmon recovery efforts. These include "drawdowns" to spill more water over the dams at certain times of the year, and barging young salmon downstream. Even so, the number of fish returning to spawn each year continues to decline.
Given the number of things that impact salmon - logging, ranching, farming, industrial and urban pollution, and the dams - it seems likely that the spotted-owl controversy over clear-cut logging in the region will seem easy by comparison.
Yet no one downplays the need to save the fish, which are seen not only as a regional icon but as an indicator of environmental well-being here.
Says Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), who favors breaching the four Snake River dams: "If our salmon runs are not healthy, then our watersheds are not healthy. And if our watersheds are not healthy, then we are putting at risk our future and that of our children...."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society