U.S. Throws Life Preserver to Salmon

Impact of Protection Order Will Ripple Through Urban Life in Pacific Northwest

By Tom Kenworthy

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 17, 1999; Page A03

SEATTLE, March 16-When Northwest timber towns endured economic dislocation from court-imposed efforts to protect the spotted owl a decade ago, grumbling loggers often said the outcome would have been different if city folks in Seattle or Portland were under the gun.

Seattle and Portland's turn finally came today, and the outcome is likely to be far costlier and more widespread than the earlier troubles.

The Clinton administration extended special protection to nine subspecies of coastal fish, including four populations of the mighty chinook salmon that is a cultural icon in this region of once-wild rivers and towering Douglas firs. The announcement here marked the first time the 26-year-old Endangered Species Act, designed to protect imperiled wildlife, has been imposed across such large metropolitan areas.

The decision to list seven salmon and two steelhead populations is expected, when fully implemented, to have a broad impact across a wide swath of the booming Northwest, on everything from home construction to agriculture to logging, even on such mundane tasks as washing cars and fertilizing lawns. And, surprising in an era when the Endangered Species Act is widely vilified, it was greeted by a collective call to do whatever it takes to save the symbol of the Northwest.

"We have forced salmon to adjust to us, but with this listing we are going to adjust to salmon," said William D. Ruckelshaus, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who heads a coalition of business and environmental leaders working to restore salmon in the Puget Sound area.

"We are kind of fond of saying around here that without salmon there's not much difference between us and Los Angeles," added TimCeis, the Endangered Species Act coordinator for the Seattle area's King County. "We just got a wake-up call."

Here in Washington state, the decision to extend the act to Puget Sound chinook and other fish will affect about 65 percent of the population in ways large and small, imposing new standards for waters the fish call home and, by extension, on a wide range of human activitiesthat pollute or otherwise affect those waters. Overall, the impact will extend from the Canadian border south to Portland, Ore., and the Willamette Valley, even farther to northern and central California if four other populations of chinook salmon on which decisions were deferred are added to the list later.

"It does directly impact these large urban areas in a way these other fish and wildlife decisions have not," said Curt Smitch, Washington Gov. Gary Locke's special assistant for natural resources. "In this case, salmon happen to live where we live. . . . We are going to have to change the way we live and change our behaviors. Everybody who use water and is affected by land use practices is going to see things change."

Expected for more than a year, today's announcement in the short term will affect only federal land use. Consumers will hardly notice, as most salmon for the dinner table come from Alaska and overseas. But over the coming months, as the National Marine Fisheries Service draws up rules governing private land and state and municipal governments, the impact will be sweeping, affecting how Seattle and other cities use water and build roads, how farmers raise cows, how housing is built and how industry operates.

Michelle Desiderio, director of air, waste and wildlife policy for the National Association of Home Builders, said it is too early to predict the effects with any precision but that developers undoubtedly will face new constraints and responsibilities that will bring delays and drive up prices.

Powered by a consensus that salmon are worth saving, even at considerable cost, public officials here have been planning for the decision for many months. In Seattle and its surrounding counties, government leaders have been drawing up conservation plans they hope will persuade the federal government that they are serious and will prevents onerous, federally imposed restrictions.

Seattle, for example, has committed to spending more than $200 million, much of it for habitat protection along the Cedar River that supplies most of the region's drinking water, and for water conservation and sewer overflow management.

Officials from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have merged their conservation efforts and promised to spend tens of millions more to purchase and protect sensitive land.

Mindful of how politically perilous endangered species actions can be, the federal government has welcomed that local involvement. In its budget for next year, the administration has proposed $100 million in aid to the region.

"People don't need to be told the importance of salmon," Seattle Mayor Paul Schell said today. "No one wants to tell their children they saw the last wild salmon."

Once viewed as an inexhaustible resource, the Pacific Northwest's salmon populations have been declining for decades. As a result, it has long been an article of faith here that significant changes in how the region manages its rivers, allocates its waters and uses its land were inevitable.

Though resilient creatures that begin life in the rivers and streams of the Northwest, migrate to the ocean and then return upstream to spawn, salmon and steelhead--oceangoing trout that are prized game fish--have been under assault by dams that impede their migration, by forest clear-cutting and road-building that degrade waterways through erosion, by pollution, by overfishing, by farming that pollutes rivers and by excessive reliance on hatcheries that have weakened wild populations.

Even before today's announcement, federal officials this decade had extended protection to 15 populations of steelhead and chinook, coho and sockeye salmon, including once-vital runs on the Columbia, Snake and Willamette Rivers. Today's decision adds one more chinook run to the endangered species list, and three chinook, one sockeye salmon, two chum salmon and two steelhead populations to the list of threatened species, a designation that means they are likely to become endangered.

Even with extraordinary measures and cooperation, the restoration of salmon in the Northwest is expected to take many decades. But Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, took the long view, saying: "Salmon have been sustaining us for thousands of years. Now is the chance for us to step up to the plate and sustain salmon."

Joining the Endangered Species List

1. Upper Columbia River spring-run chinook (Endangered)

2. Puget Sound chinook (Threatened)

3. Ozette Lake sockeye (Threatened)

4. Hood Canal summer-run chum (Threatened)

5. Middle Columbia River steelhead (Threatened)

6. Lower Columbia River chinook (Threatened)

7. Columbia River chum (Threatened)

8. Upper Willamette River chinook (Threatened)

9. Upper Willamette River steelhead (Threatened)

SOURCE: National Marine Fisheries Service

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