Northwest lobby petitions Trump to end salmon protection

The group claims that salmon-protection programs in the Columbia and Snake rivers favor fish over people, while environmental groups argue that other businesses would be hurt by sidestepping endangered species laws.

Jesse Tinsley /The Spokesman-Review/AP
A man fishes for salmon in the Snake River above the Lower Granite Dam in Washington state on Oct. 19, 2016. A group representing farmers says the costs of protecting endangered salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers are unsustainable and wants the government to convene a Cabinet-level committee to allow exemptions to the Endangered Species Act.

A group that represents farmers is calling the costs of saving imperiled salmon in the largest river system in the Pacific Northwest unsustainable and is turning to the Trump administration to sidestep endangered species laws.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association wants the government to convene a Cabinet-level committee with the power to allow exemptions to the Endangered Species Act. Known as the "God squad" because its decisions can lead to extinctions of threatened wildlife, it has only gathered three times – the last 25 years ago during a controversy over spotted owl habitat in the Northwest.

The irrigators association is frustrated with court rulings it says favor fish over people, claiming the committee could end years of legal challenges over United States dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and bring stability for irrigators, power generators, and other businesses that rely on the water.

Environmental groups call the request a publicity stunt and say it could hurt fishing companies and others that rely on healthy runs of federally protected salmon and steelhead.

The association sees hope in a series of pro-industry environmental decisions by President Trump. His administration has rescinded an Obama-era rule that would shield many small streams and other bodies of water from pollution and development, enacted policies to increase coal mining on federal lands and proposed giving Western states greater flexibility to allow development in habitat of sage grouse, a threatened bird.

Darryll Olsen, association board representative, said the irrigators requested the committee during former President Barack Obama's tenure but got nowhere. He said the Trump administration has been encouraging during talks, leading to a formal request last month for a meeting with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

"What we're asking for is that the secretary give direction to the [Interior] Department to work with us to review the steps for implementing the God squad," Mr. Olsen said.

Mr. Zinke can gather the committee, which he would chair and would include other natural resource agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. It also would include representatives from Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

If five of the federal committee members agree, they could exempt US agencies from Endangered Species Act requirements for one or more of the 13 species of salmon and steelhead listed since the early 1990s.

The irrigators group, which has 120 members growing food crops in Washington State and Oregon, expects to meet with Zinke soon, Olsen said.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email that the agency could not comment on a committee that had not been formed and that she had no information about Zinke's meetings.

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of a coalition of conservation, commercial, sport fishing, and business groups called Save Our Wild Salmon, blasted the irrigation association's request.

"It's a terrible idea that will deliver great harm to the people and businesses of the Pacific Northwest," said Mr. Bogaard, whose coalition relies on the fish to produce millions of dollars of revenue.

A federal judge ruled last year that the government had not done enough to improve salmon runs despite spending billions of dollars and urged it to consider removing four dams on the lower Snake River.

Todd True, a lawyer with the environmental law firm Earthjustice who represented some plaintiffs in that 2016 ruling, said the God squad request should go nowhere.

"There isn't any basis to convene the committee because there are reasonable alternatives to save the fish," he said, pointing to the dam removal option. "Their removal would be a big step forward."

This year, fish counts at dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have been well below the 10-year average, which biologists blame on droughts in 2014 and 2015 and warming ocean conditions.

Various results have emerged the three times the God squad has convened. It refused to grant an exemption for a Tennessee dam in the 1970s over a fish called the snail darter. Regarding crane protection in the Midwest, a settlement was reached before the panel offered a decision.

In 1992, it voted to sidestep protections for the northern spotted owl and allow the Interior Department to sell timber on land in Oregon.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Northwest lobby petitions Trump to end salmon protection
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today