Thursday, December 17, 2009

Free the Science!

Taking a closer look at the Obama Salmon Plan for the Columbia and Snake Rivers

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In his inaugural speech in January 2009, President Obama made a clear and explicit commitment to “restore science to its rightful place” in policy-making. Since then, several officials in his administration have echoed this call.

In the Pacific Northwest, however, this is not what salmon advocates and fishing communities have experienced. Despite the campaign promises, inaugural pledges and presidential speeches, the Obama administration recently decided to adopt a flawed 2008 NOAA Fisheries salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake Rivers that was originally crafted by the Bush Administration. This September 2009 decision followed an extended review period and a great opportunity to get it right. During this review, the Obama team received thousands of calls for a new approach from national and international scientists, Members of Congress, former and current governors, regional and national newspapers, and salmon and fishing advocates from across the country.

By failing to live up to its promises in the Columbia-Snake River Basin, the Obama administration has brought yet more uncertainty for endangered salmon and struggling salmon-dependent communities, as well as American taxpayers and Northwest ratepayers.

Neither open nor honest.

“I am also signing a Presidential Memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy… to ensure that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions."

- President Obama

In the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the Obama administration has been anything but open and honest. This past summer’s review of the Bush salmon plan included a so-called independent scientific review, the bulk of which took the form of a two-day workshop held in Washington, DC. The workshop was not publicized nor was public input sought; the eight scientists who participated were required to sign confidentiality agreements; none of those eight were federal biologists outside NOAA Fisheries; and it appears that views different from NOAA were not presented to these reviewers. So much for transparency! Only after several months, a request from a coalition of conservation and fishing groups, and the urging from federal Judge James Redden did the government grudgingly release a limited number of documents related to this review.

What does assuming do?

Less than a third of the documents associated with this review have been released to date, but they still help paint a clear picture. The scientists who participated in the review had extensive concerns about the 2008 salmon plan, helping confirm that the Obama administration’s tweaks ultimately fail to create a legal and scientifically sound plan. Much of this concern stems from the plan’s reliance on many underlying assumptions – regarding everything from climate change to habitat to river operations. Any scientist can tell you that science-guided policy based on flawed assumptions puts the credibility – and in this case, the legality – of that science, at risk.
Download the top 10 quotes from panel scientists.

AMIP or A Map of More Decline?

On September 15, 2009, when the Obama Administration announced its decision to adopt the 2008 Bush Plan, officials added a new document, known as the 'AMIP' (Adaptive Management Implementation Plan). The AMIP contains a number of rather undefined and largely in-the-distant-future studies and potential plans to make plans (really!) that will be triggered for consideration if and when our already-endangered salmon and steelhead populations decline even further – in some cases to near-extinction levels. As for consideration of lower Snake River dam removal? The AMIP indicates that this already viable option – the one measure that scientists say offers the best chance of recovering Snake River salmon -- might possibly be studied sometime in the distant and still undefined future...maybe.

Unfortunately, this addendum to the 2008 salmon plan does nothing to bolster the original plan’s validity under the Endangered Species Act. Planning for possible additional measures in the years to come can’t mask the 2008 salmon plan’s very real scientific and legal flaws.

Scientists speak out

“We scientists believed the President when he said he would protect science and strengthen the ESA, but Secretary Locke and Dr. Lubchenco have seemingly allowed political pressure to circumvent a decision based on sound science.”

- Bill Shake, retired Assistant Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since the salmon plan was released in September, hundreds of scientists have continued speaking out against another federal failure of science and the law. In a letter to Judge James Redden, the American Fisheries Society’s Oregon Chapter outlines several key problems with NOAA’s latest plan:

1) Maintains obscure language relating to salmonid recovery (e.g., “trending toward recovery”)
2) Fails to directly and comprehensively address dam breaching as a key component of salmonid recovery
3) Does not specify which body/entity will evaluate the study of the efficacy of dam breaching
4) Proposes several indicators of failure (i.e., “triggers” for management action) but does not clearly specify the remedial actions or offer timelines for remedial actions to occur
5) Offers no benchmarks for success (or how to measure success)
6) Fails to deal with the underlying pressures of human population growth and per capita resource consumption (together producing economic growth) as substantial drivers of salmon extirpation.

What’s Next

The Obama Administration's decision to perpetuate the failed policies of the past, and its opposition to participating in substantive discussions that could develop a legal, science-based salmon plan that works for both salmon and people, is a major disappointment to salmon and fishing advocates, Northwest ratepayers, and taxpayers nationwide. In 2010, advocates from across the country will be continuing the call for real leadership and real change.

Stay tuned for more ways to get involved this year.
For more information, please contact Bobby Hayden,, 541.359.4818

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