Bush's path through the politics of salmon

The White House is weighing in more on Pacific Northwest disputes as 2004 nears.

Since he's a Texas boy, you might think that President Bush's favorite fish species would be bass. That's what he has stocked the 11-acre lake on his ranch with.

But lately, Mr. Bush has shown a lot of interest in Pacific Northwest salmon. And not for sport or grilling purposes.

On his recent fundraising trip out this way, he visited the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River in Washington State. There, he made a point of talking about government recovery efforts for endangered salmon, which are a regional icon here. His supporters note that seasonal salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin are the highest they've been in decades.

But perhaps more significant, White House political honcho Karl Rove has quietly been making trips West and - according to some reports - putting pressure on federal agencies on behalf of the agriculture industry in the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California. Farmers and ranchers there have been complaining about federal efforts to protect endangered species, including salmon, at the expense of irrigation.

As a result, the Interior Department's inspector general has just announced an investigation of possible political interference by the White House in developing water policy in the Pacific Northwest. If any evidence of political pressure is found, says Interior Department inspector general Earl Devaney, "we ... would immediately notify the Department of Justice Office of Public Integrity."

Natural resources in the West - especially water - have always been highly political.

Earlier this summer, shortly after The Wall Street Journal first reported Mr. Rove's involvement in the Klamath Basin controversy, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts - a candidate for president - charged that the Bush administration had "acted as if federal agencies like the Interior Department are a division of the Republican National Committee and at their disposal to give out political favors."

The politics here are obvious: Bush lost Oregon to Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by a scant 1 percent of the vote. The White House wants to solidify its base here: farmers, ranchers, and the timber industry. This also explains Bush's recent visit to a massive fire in central Oregon (it's still raging), which he cited as a reason to support his "Healthy Forests Initiative" calling for more logging.

The science, economics, and politics of salmon in the Northwest add up to one of the nation's most complex and costly environmental issues - far tougher to sort out than the infamous northern spotted owl.

Salmon runs

Every year, native salmon once returned by the millions to their spawning grounds in rivers and streams here covering an area the size of central Europe. With the construction of nine major dams across the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington and Idaho (Bonneville was the first in 1938), much of the original salmon habitat was cut off. Juvenile fish had to fight their way downstream past giant hydropower turbines and then back upstream as adults via a series of fish ladders around the dams.

Logging, mining, agricultural runoff, commercial fishing, industrial and residential development - all added to threats that have brought the number of native salmon to their present condition: a fraction of their original numbers with some populations now extinct.

(Most of the unusually large numbers of returning salmon this year are hatchery fish, not native wild salmon. Biologists attribute these numbers to particularly favorable ocean conditions tied to currents and weather patterns, not to the multibillion-dollar court-ordered efforts to improve salmon habitat and lessen industrial and agricultural threats.)

Meanwhile, along the California-Oregon border, Klamath River salmon plummeted for similar reasons. Other fish species in Klamath Lake (which feeds the river) are also endangered as federal and state agencies try to sort out competing claims on the water, which include National Wildlife Refuges, farmers and ranchers, commercial fishermen, and Indian tribes.

During the drought of 2001, farmers in the area threatened to break open irrigation head gates that had been locked shut to provide a minimum of water for fish, migrating birds that stop here along the Pacific flyway, and other wildlife. More rainfall and a better snowpack since then have only temporarily put off the inevitable tough decision over legal claims to water that has been overallocated since 1902 - when, coincidentally, the federal government began both the wildlife refuge system and the federal "reclamation" program that drained millions of acres of wetlands to provide irrigation.

Where Bush officials stand

The Bush administration waded into this historical and highly contentious situation mainly on the side of farmers and ranchers. This has left conservationists, native Americans, and downstream commercial fishermen feeling shut out and in some cases litigious. And it's put the political spotlight on yet another administration under pressure to find a way to save salmon without putting farmers out of business.

Says Rebecca Wodder, president of the conservation group American Rivers: "The region is crying out for a plan that will bring back the healthy, harvestable, sustainable wild salmon runs that so many communities and local economies depend on and citizens of the Northwest want."

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