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The Portland Oregonian

Kitzhaber salmon plan could be dead in water

The governor's new Columbia Basin proposal already lacks the tribal and regional support it would need to pass Congress

Sunday, November 19, 2000

By Jonathan Brinckman of The Oregonian staff

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber will unveil a proposal Monday designed to end the squabbling among the four Northwest states, the federal government and the tribes over how to save the Columbia River Basin's threatened salmon.

But even before he outlines the plan, it faces serious obstacles.

Among the other Northwest governors, only Republican Marc Racicot of Montana supports the plan, which he helped draft. The governors of Washington and Idaho and officials of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission oppose the plan.

Without the backing of all four states and the Northwest tribes, legislation affecting the region would have little chance of making it through Congress.

The opposition doesn't faze Kitzhaber, who has often broken with other Northwest political leaders on salmon issues -- most dramatically in February, when he endorsed breaching the four federal dams on the lower Snake River.

"We're pushing forward with this because it's the right thing to do," said Eric Bloch, Kitzhaber's appointee to the Northwest Power Planning Council and his top aide on Columbia Basin salmon policy. "There's a crying need to improve fish and wildlife planning. We're convinced that if we keep at it, over time we will pick up the support we need to make it happen."

The plan would amend the 1980 federal legislation that created the power planning council, whose duty is to balance energy planning with fish and wildlife conservation in the four states.

The proposal from the two governors comes as the region grapples with three other plans for restoring threatened salmon populations: one directed by the federal government, one by the power planning council and one by the four treaty tribes. Though the plans have much in common, they also have some significant differences.

One is over breaching the Snake River dams. The tribal plan insists that salmon stocks will be restored only if the dams are breached. The federal plan says the dams shouldn't be removed now, but that breaching should be considered later if such efforts as habitat restoration and modifications to the hydro system fail to rebuild the salmon runs.

Kitzhaber and Racicot will hold a public hearing on the new plan Monday from 1:30 to 5 p.m. in the Mount Hood Room at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel.

The proposal calls for creating a new advisory board to the eight-member power council. The board would be called the Fish and Wildlife Committee and would have six members: four representing each of the states; one member appointed by the president to represent the federal government; and one member appointed by the tribes.

The commission would be charged with creating a single salmon recovery plan that would comply with the federal Endangered Species Act and other federal environmental laws while also meeting all the federal government's tribal treaty obligations.

Bloch said the idea is to give the Northwest more authority in developing ways to aid salmon.

Criticism of proposal
Critics don't see it that way.

Aides to Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said he is wary of changing the structure of the power council. "He has concerns about shuffling the deck," said H.D. Palmer, a Kempthorne spokesman.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke thinks it's risky to expand the power council's authority, said Sandi Snell, a spokeswoman for Locke's salmon recovery office. "We think it's a poor idea," Snell said. "We're not planning on even attending Monday."

Officials of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with fishing rights guaranteed by federal treaties, are worried about handing over too much authority to the states.

"We do not think it's adequate," said Charles Hudson, a commission spokesman. "It's a thoughtful idea, but it lacks a key understanding of the legal issues. Our treaties are with the federal government, not with the states."

John Etchart, a Montana appointee to the power planning council, said the specifics of the proposed legislation are less important than the concept. "What Kitzhaber and Racicot are really trying do is not so much promote that particular piece of legislation but stimulate conversation across the region."

Bloch said Kitzhaber and Racicot will consider comments about the plan and modify their draft legislation before seeking a congressional sponsor, possibly early next year.


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