Judge’s proposal:The government gets three months to review its fish-recovery effort
The federal government will spend three more months reconfiguring its plan for salmon and dams in the Columbia Basin in the hopes of pleasing a Portland judge.
Friday’s announcement by the government is the latest turn in a long-running litigation about federal agencies’ strategy to run the Northwest’s system of power-producing dams without pushing imperiled fish closer to extinction.
In a letter to U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, the U.S. Department of Justice accepted the judge’s proposal for the government to voluntarily review its plan before the judge rules on its merits.
The government earlier asked for something similar as a way to end a legal impasse on the plan, and today Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon ecologist and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said she was pleased with the direction of the case.
“We look forward to moving out of the courtroom and focusing on the protection and restoration efforts that make the most difference for Northwest salmon and the communities that rely on them,” Lubchenco said in a statement.
Judge Redden has twice rejected earlier plans, called biological opinions.
In a Feb. 10 letter accompanying his proposed order for a so-called voluntary remand of the plan, Redden said Obama administration needs to consider the “best available science” during their review.
“They cannot rely exclusively on materials that support one position, while ignoring new or opposing scientific information,” Redden wrote.
Significantly, the judge said in that letter that the government doesn’t need to change the plan’s jeopardy standard, the legal measure of whether the plan keeps fish from edging closer to extinction.
Opponents of the plan, which was first developed during the Bush administration and amended last year by the Obama administration, have argued in court that the jeopardy standard was illegal.
“The court noted that we do not need to start over from scratch, develop a new jeopardy framework or put at risk the progress made through the regional collaborative process,” Lubchenco said. “However, we will review any new, pertinent scientific information to ensure that (the plan) continues to be based on the best available science.”
The judge also said the administration should provide more certainty that the plan, which relies in large part on expensive improvements to salmon habitat across the vast Columbia Basin, will be adequately funded into the future.
The plan is supported by a majority of Northwest tribes and states, but is opposed by the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe and a coalition of fishing and conservation groups, who argue it favors power production and shipping interests rather than threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
Oregon has argued that the fish need higher flows in the Columbia River than the plan envisions, while salmon advocates contend the surest way to save the fish is to remove four federal dams on the lower Snake River.