Federal policy limits "critical" salmon areas

Interesting Article on Local Salmon Recovery - Jason :hmmm:
What do you think about that????????


Far fewer miles of rivers, streams and shorelines in the Northwest will now be officially designated as "critical" to salmon recovery, including tributaries of Lake Washington, stretches of the Yakima River and the entire Sammamish River watershed.

The Bush administration yesterday decided on a rule change that will safeguard as "critical habitat" only those Washington and Oregon waters that are currently occupied by runs of salmon and steelhead that are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

And even within those areas, it will also exclude thousands of miles of river and shoreline that are occupied by the threatened fish but controlled by the military or tribes. It also excludes areas where the administration has decided that the economic costs of salmon protection are just too high.

Under the ESA, the government is required to designate "critical habitat" as areas "essential to the conservation of the species."

The plan announced yesterday is largely similar to proposed changes released in November. The changes abruptly depart from the Clinton administration's policies, which had extended critical habitat to parts of rivers and streams that might be considered part of a fish's historic habitat — even if the fish don't live there now.

Last fall, federal officials said the new plan amounted to a reduction of about 80 percent in habitat listed as critical. Yesterday, though, federal fisheries officials said the earlier figure was inflated.

But they couldn't say by how much.

But the officials also said the rule change amounts to a legal formality that will do little to change how salmon listed under the ESA are actually protected.

Environmentalists, who had objected loudly to the proposal last fall, weren't surprised by yesterday's announcement. Still, they expressed frustration and characterized the decision as a fundamental and disturbing shift in salmon policy.

"Critical habitat means that we have to look before we leap when planning timber sales, building highways, constructing subdivisions," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation.

"It says, 'Is what we're doing going to set back salmon recovery, and if so, is there a better way?' In the absence of critical habitat, we don't get to ask those questions."

Farming and building-industry groups have opposed the "critical" designations because they add time-consuming paperwork to some projects.

"We contend it doesn't add much protection, but it does add a whole other level of red tape and lots of extra hoops that are very burdensome," said Russell Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents industry groups in fights against environmental rules.

Critical-habitat designations can cover thousands of acres of land, or miles of streams. But the designations don't, by themselves, require any real protections on private property.

Still, whenever the federal government wants to disturb land — for a highway or a bridge, for example — the designation requires wildlife agencies to review the projects for their impacts on salmon. And it can force such reviews whenever a landowner seeks a federal permit, such as to build a dock.

The Bush and Clinton administrations have both argued that those official designations did little to actually help threatened plants or wildlife because a separate set of protection rules called "recovery plans" actually detail specifics of how land or water within salmon habitat must be treated.

But environmentalists argue that if habitat doesn't have a "critical" designation, one government agency can approve destructive activities without ever notifying federal wildlife agencies.

Yesterday's changes were prompted by a lawsuit by industry groups, which had claimed that Clinton's "critical" designations had been made without considering the costs to the economy in lost timber harvests and land development.

So in coming up with the latest designations, the National Marine Fisheries Service excluded 1,987 miles of streams where, it said, those economic costs outweighed the conservation benefits.

In those cases, the lost money from housing development, for example, was extremely high for saving very few salmon left in those areas.

In addition to the Lake Sammamish watershed and other streams in urban King County, some of those excluded areas now include parts of the Baker River watershed in Whatcom County, tributaries of the Methow River in Okanogan County, and some streams that feed into Icicle Creek outside Leavenworth in Chelan County.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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