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The Oregon Plan: A New Approach to Recovering Salmon

The Oregon Plan by Bob Rice

Salmon is a symbol of the Pacific Northwest. Without salmon, Lewis and Clark would never have survived after their descent from Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains to the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark even postponed leaving Fort Clatsop until the salmon runs began, to be assured of sufficient food en route.

Salmon is still a symbol of the Northwest, but things are tough for them. The "June Hogs" (five foot long, 100 plus pound) salmon found in the Columbia River are extinct because no fish passage was provided at Grand Coulee Dam. Also gone, or at least buried under two of the over 20 mainstem Columbia and Snake River Dams, are the sacred Indian fishing sites of Celilo Falls and The Dalles. All but gone is a once-thriving fishing industry where salmon were so numerous that fish wheels were used to toss fish ashore. Salmon have dwindled to a mere shadow of the splendor that caused the Columbia River Basin to be the greatest fish producer the world has ever seen.

In this century, dams have blocked access to one-third of all salmon's former habitat, and habitat degradation (grazing, timber harvesting, mining, water-use, urbanization, and water pollution) have already caused the extinction of many salmon runs. The American Fisheries Society classifies 214 northwest runs of wild salmon and trout as at risk, and over 100 of these runs are classified as at a high risk of extinction. Yet, even so, I am optimistic about the future of these fish.

Let's look at what has happened in the past 10 years. In 1987, the Legislature passed a law allowing for instream water rights. To date, almost 1,400 instream water rights have been adopted to protect river flows for fish. Oregon arguably has the most stringent forest practice standards for state and private lands in the country, and agricultural concerns are being addressed. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have embraced the concept of ecosystem management. As a consequence the unsustainable timber harvests of the mid 1980s have fallen dramatically. These are all good signs.

Perhaps most importantly, ideas such as watershed management are commonly discussed. Over 60 local watershed councils have been formed statewide encompassing relatively small watersheds such as Pringle and Rickreal Creek, and much larger ones such as the Santiam River. These watershed councils include a cross section of Oregonians, including ranchers, farmers, timber operators, fish advocates, environmentalists, elected officials, resource managers, landowners, and recreationists. People who once sued each other to get their point across are now working together to find common ground.

Unfortunately, the late 1980's and early 1990's hit Oregon fish with a double whammy-low water years making it difficult to survive inland, and poor ocean conditions resulting in little food being found off Oregon's coast. These natural phenomena have helped push many fish to the brink of extinction.

The Oregon Plan In 1995, Governor Kitzhaber announced his Coastal Salmon Restoration Initiative. This Initiative is one of the most exciting developments in natural resource management, and in making good government. As a result, Oregon is being looked upon as a model for the rest of the country to see if an ecosystem-based recovery plan can be voluntarily developed to recover fish and other species which might otherwise be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Prior to The Oregon Plan, the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) has always been used to focus attention on a single species. With some notable exceptions, such as the bald eagle, once a species has been listed, it has generally stayed on the list. The listing agency, either the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW), is charged with developing a recovery plan. In the salmon arena, recovery plan development has been difficult to do.

A crucial difference to be noted between the Oregon Plan and the ESA is this: the Oregon Plan is based on voluntary compliance with objectives for species recovery. Once the ESA is invoked, compliance with its rulings is federally mandated.

In October, 1995, NMFS proposed listing coastal coho under the ESA. Governor Kitzhaber has always stated that his interest is not in preventing a listing of the coastal coho but in recovering the species. In this case, Governor Kitzhaber chose to make use of a heretofore unused part of the ESA which requires the federal government to consider a state's recovery plan before making an ESA listing decision on the status of a species. If the state plan is found to be likely to recover the species, then the federal ESA listing is witheld.

The Oregon Plan involves a wide diversity of people and interests. For instance, it emphasizes empowering local watershed councils, soil and water districts, municipalities and other groups. But from a state worker's perspective, what is truly unique about The Oregon Plan is how the Governor has brought all of the state agencies together to engage in a qualitatively different kind of problem-solving. Since January, 1996, the directors of the natural resource agencies and other key agencies such as Economic Development and Oregon Department of Transportation have been meeting biweekly with the Governor to discuss progress on developing and implementing the salmon plan. Issue teams have been formed to address complex multidisciplinary, multi-agency issues in innovative ways. For example, when it was determined that some water diversion structures were blocking fish passage in southern Oregon and that no agency had all of the necessary authority to address the issue, seven state agencies, two federal agencies, two local government groups and one watershed council all worked cooperatively with private landowners and environmental groups to determine the extent of the problem and resolve it.

Partnerships like this create optimism about restoring the salmon runs.

But will the State effort succeed? The true measure of success is to have healthy salmon populations, and since it has taken us 150 years to get into our present predicament, it's going to take a long time to recover. Even with an intensive monitoring program, we probably won't know for at least 20 years if the efforts we've started will work.

In April, 1997, the NMFS chose not to list coho salmon under the federal ESA in the Middle and Northern Oregon coast, based on the strength of The Oregon Plan. In effect, NMFS stated that The Oregon Plan provided a good foundation for recovery of the coho salmon. At the same time, NMFS did list coho on the Southern Oregon coast and in Northern California. This later listing occurred because fish don't recognize political boundaries and not enough was being done to restore the fish in Northern California. It's worth noting that Governor Kitzhaber supported the decision to list the fish in Southern Oregon, despite tremendous work done by numerous people in the Rogue and South Coast Basins. As he said when he started this Initiative, our objective is not to prevent a listing, but to restore the salmon, and if a listing is necessary to restore the fish then it should be listed.

What is the significance, or legacy, of the work that has begun in the coastal areas for those of us living in and around Salem? While coastal coho are not found in Salem or the Willamette River Basin, steelhead and chinook are found here, and their populations are not healthy. The NMFS has evaluated the status of steelhead throughout the Northwest, and has proposed listing several populations. NMFS has proposed to list the stocks downstream of Willamette Falls, and though they have not proposed listing the Upper Willamette stocks, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife believes that the most recent data shows that the Upper Willamette stocks may be in the greatest peril of any in the State. Additionally, the Willamette Chinook runs are unhealthy. NMFS will be evaluating this and other stocks shortly. In response to these fishery concerns, the State is currently drafting a Steelhead Plan. This plan relies heavily on what was learned on the coast with the coho. Even though each area and fish species is unique, certain habitat requirements such as providing cold, clean, and adequate quantities of water, are common to all fish species.

The real strength of The Oregon Plan is its commitment to accountability and results, its flexibility in strategies and approaches, and its ability to bring together the diverse sectors of our society with a common goal of restoring fish. These have been traditional weaknesses of the ESA. Addressing these issues gives us all something to cheer about.

Bob Rice is a Watershed Management Coordinator for the Oregon Water Resources Department and serves on the State's Salmon Recovery Implementation Team. If you would like to learn more about the State's salmon recovery efforts you can call any State natural resource agency or the Governor's office. The Coastal Salmon Restoration Initiative Plan is available online at www.das.state.or.us/salmon/

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