In September, the Obama Administration endorsed a flawed salmon plan or BiOp, as it has been called, for the Columbia River system. The day is here now when Judge Redden will hear final arguments in the courtroom on the legality of this plan. Today, a group of advocates and fishermen are back in the federal court room in Portland and they are fighting for you, me and for the salmon and steelhead of the Northwest. One of those passionate fishermen is steelhead guide Jeff Hickman. Jeff grew up waist deep in Columbia tribs and has made a life guiding and fishing these same great rivers. He has followed closely the Columbia salmon fight for the last 10 years and like all of us, he is ready to see this situation be resolved once and for all.
I talked to Hickman this morning before he headed to the courthouse and asked him a few questions about today’s Court battle.
MS: Why is today so important for fishermen?
JH: Today is the final hearing on the legality of the obviously flawed Obama Columbia River salmon plan. As you know this “plan” is an ugly leftover from the Bush days. It has a couple bits of fluff added by the Obama folks but it would effectively shovel dirt onto the casket of wild Columbia River salmon and steelhead.
The Obama administration was elected on the hope of change and the promise to bring science back to the table. We asked them to save our salmon, our jobs and our Northwest way of life. But here, they chose politics over science and the law. The impacts of this failure are farther-reaching than you can imagine. This is affecting fishing communities, restaurants, and everyday Americans; not to mention the havoc it will wreak on the ecology of our Western landscape and cultural identity.
The Columbia is the most crucial link of the Pacific Rim fisheries. It’s like the jugular vein of the west coast and it is definitely the backbone of wild salmon and steelhead in the lower 48. So today is a big deal for fishermen.
MS: What do you think about NOAA’s head of fisheries Jane Lubchenco being in the courtroom today?
JH: We’re glad Dr. Lubchenco is here today. We hope she listens carefully and realizes that the plan the administration has proposed is deeply flawed. If she listens and learns from the hearing, it will be good news for our salmon and our communities.
MS: Some are saying that Dr. Lubchenco is here to pressure the judge and to give a sense that the science in this plan is sound. What do you think about that?
JH: I am confident that the judge will decide this case based on the law and the evidence,
MS: Why are fishermen rallying outside this hearing?
JH: Fishermen are outside with their boats to remind Dr. Lubchenco and the administration that fishing jobs matter; that healthy salmon and steelhead runs mean healthy businesses and strong communities; and that science, not politics should be at the center of her and her agency’s decisions on this matter.
MS: Why is the judge questioning the administration’s decision not to release some scientific documents related to its review of the salmon plan? What are those documents? And is this a big deal?
JH: The administration has claimed that their revised plan is based on the best available science and relied on a closed-door discussion with a few scientists to make that claim. However, the administration has not publicly shared any of that information despite several requests to do so. Coming from an administration that pledged transparency and openness in policy-making as well as a reliance on sound science, this is troublesome. It is difficult to say whether or not it has substantial value because we haven’t seen it. It unfortunately reinforces this administration’s failure to engage with conservationists and fishermen in their deliberations, despite being directed by the judge to do so.
MS: So, the judge asked for a list of things – practical things – the feds could do to improve the plan. I don’t think he was talking about dam removal, so what else are you guys saying to him?
JH: We’ve been saying the same thing for years – We’re just asking that the hydro system start doing its fair share and we identified potential actions, short of dam removal, that we’ve been suggesting for years.
MS: Do you think that with almost all of the regional tribes and states behind this plan – and now even the Obama administration – the judge is going to have a hard time telling all these parties that they’re wrong about what’s good for these fish?
JH: The coalition of those insisting on a stronger, legally viable plan remains large and diverse, including sport and commercial fishermen, the national and regional environmental community, the State of Oregon, and the Nez Perce Tribe. What’s more, the judge will decide this case based on the law and science – nothing more and nothing less. As to why other parties support this plan with its obvious deficiencies, you’ll have to ask them.
MS: How can conservationists and fishing groups support removing the lower Snake River dams – a source of clean, renewable energy – when we’re facing the unprecedented challenge of global warming?
JH: First of all, we know that the electricity from these four dams can be replaced with cost-effective alternatives, such as energy conservation and efficiency and truly clean renewables like wind power. We don’t have to choose between healthy salmon runs and clean, affordable energy – the Northwest needs and deserves both, and both are 100% possible with the right vision, planning and leadership. We have the technology; now let’s find the political will to make it happen. [Editor’s note: Follow this link for a Great Debate — The Mule versus BPA bureaucrat over replacing this power capacity]
Secondly, the surest way to protect and restore the very salmon populations that are most likely to weather the impacts of climate change in the Columbia Basin is to reconnect these salmon to the best spawning habitat left in the continental U.S. – the thousands of high-elevation, high-quality stream miles that are currently locked behind the four lower Snake River dams. Snake River salmon climb higher than any other runs of salmon on earth; they stand the best chance of making it in a changed climate, but only if we give them access to the habitat they need; dam removal is the key to that habitat.