In setting its marker for saving wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the Bush administration dealt an apparent setback to prospects for recovery of a signature species - and effectively sided with industries rather than fisheries that rely on the region's waterways.
The administration is pushing to maintain major dams and reduce habitat protections for the endangered salmon - decisions that indicate a clear tilt toward development interests in a long-running dispute over the use of resources in a region the size of central Europe.
Unless it is successfully challenged in court, the decision could have wide impacts in an area covering thousands of miles of streams and rivers, billions of dollars in economic activity, a wide range of development from family homes to farms to military bases, native American treaty rights, and an iconic fish species that has defined a region's history and identity.
The announcement this week includes two fundamental points:
• The eight major hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin - from the Bonneville to the Lower Granite - will not be torn down to accommodate endangered salmon, even though those massive concrete walls and their churning turbines have been a major factor in the fish's steady decline and (in the case of some species) extinction.
• The thousands of square miles of officially designated "critical habitat" for salmon and steelhead (a species of trout that also spends part of its life in the ocean) will be reduced by a dramatic 80 percent.
That habitat, which is considered crucial to protecting and recovering species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, in fact extends well south to include river areas of California down to San Diego.
This week's action comes in response to a lawsuit brought by the National Association of Home Builders. But it follows decades of legal actions brought by native American and environmental groups as well. Because so many jurisdictions are involved - six states, dozens of agencies, plus many more special-interest groups - federal courts are sure to remain a key player in finding balance between environmental protection and economic development in a rapidly growing region.
Government officials say they remain committed to protecting and reviving salmon runs that over the past century have plummeted from an estimated 16 million fish a year to only about 1 million.
Part of the new plan includes spending $6 billion over the next 10 years on things like fish slides to allow juvenile salmon, born far upstream, to bypass the hydropower turbines on their way to the Pacific Ocean as well as increased efforts to control predator fish and birds.
In all, says Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, "The actions proposed by the federal agencies do provide major steps in making their operations fish-friendly."
The administration actions follow an earlier decision to include hatchery-bred fish with wild salmon for purposes of counting fish under the Endangered Species Act - a move decried by many biologists. "The new plan would actually allow further declines in salmon populations, and it abandons the goal of recovering wild salmon and steelhead," says Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon.
Commercial fishing interests are concerned as well. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations says restoring salmon runs would net the region $500 million in revenue and as many as 25,000 jobs.
In recent years, most of the salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest and California have seen noticeable increases - due largely to seasonal ocean conditions. But many scientists note that this is likely to be a temporary phenomenon.
Last week, 250 fish biologists and other scientists urged the administration to take stronger steps to protect the fish and their habitat. Officials say the announcement regarding "critical habitat" is based on where salmon exist today, rather than where they historically returned to spawn. But the scientists warned that the administration plan, which had been anticipated, would be a "step back" from needed protections.