Magazine article American Forests

Salmon's Quiet Comeback?

Magazine article American Forests

Salmon's Quiet Comeback?

Article excerpt


The Pacific Northwest exploded in 1990 when the federal government decided to protect the northern spotted owl. Lawsuits flew, loggers held protest rallies, newspapers filled with letters arguing for and against the action.

Over the last eight years, 24 runs of salmon and steelhead in rivers and streams across 157,000 square miles of the Pacific Northwest have been listed under the Endangered Species Act. That's nearly twice the 89,000 square miles covered by the spotted owl listing.

So far, the silence has been deafening.

The lack of public reaction to these listings is not brought by a lack of impact. The most recent action, a decision in March by the National Marine Fisheries Service to add nine runs of salmon and steelhead to the nation's list of threatened and endangered species, brought the Northwest region's urban and agricultural heart under the jurisdiction of the federal species act. And for the first time, those efforts include the city of Seattle and Oregon's densely settled and heavily farmed Willamette Valley.

Now 38 percent of the area of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California combined have protected salmon or steelhead in their waterways.

"In terms of geographic scope, this listing is as significant as any ESA action ever taken by this administration," says Terry Garcia, who as undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce is in charge of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's the first time we have brought the ESA to such large urban areas."

Two things are behind the muted reaction to the most recent round of ESA listings. Protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat has become an accepted part of doing business in the Pacific Northwest. Part of that means protecting and planting erosion-slowing streamside trees and leaving woody debris in streams to slow water flow, catch sediment, and provide spawning grounds. And the federal government, rather than stepping in and imposing restrictions, is standing back this time and giving local communities the lead.

"There's a recognition that these things are with us," said Howard Sohn, owner of Sun Studs, Inc., a central Oregon timber company. "There's an acceptance of the inevitable."

There's also a recognition that the region's salmon are in trouble.

The Columbia River, once the world's greatest salmon waterway, supported an estimated 16 million salmon and steelhead in the early 1800s. Now only about a million of the fish return to the river each year, and 80 percent of those are born in hatcheries. Much has conspired to decimate the salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

Overfishing is the most obvious culprit. Devices such as fish wheels, which stripped rivers of all passing salmon, and gill nets, which intercepted entire waterways, were devastatingly effective. By the late 1800s, millions of fish were harvested each year.

But fishing now is sharply restricted - with commercial harvests banned in most waterways - and still the fish are not rebounding. There are many reasons for the decline; one major culprit is dams. Even with fish ladders to allow adults to get upstream, dams cause damage by thwarting downriver passage of juveniles and converting fast-flowing cool waterways into stagnant, warm pools. Logging and grazing hurt the tributaries where adults spawn and young salmon rear, both by removing streamside vegetation that cools waterways and by increasing erosion that leaves gravel beds buried in silt.

The area won't feel the full brunt of the new listings until at least June, when the National Marine Fisheries Service plans to release "4-d rules" detailing exactly which activities are prohibited under the ESA. After that, harming a threatened species or damaging its habitat will become a federal crime, punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. …

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