The Amphibious Salmon: The Evolution of Ecosystem Management in the Columbia River Basin

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Ecology Law Quarterly

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Ecology L.Q.


The Columbia River is the paradigmatic example of the influence of technology on an ecosystem, having been developed for hydropower, navigation, and flood control throughout the 20th century. The upshot is that the Columbia Basin is now home to the largest interconnected hydroelectric system in the world and a seaport 465 miles inland. The cost has been high, however: near extermination of the basin's salmon runs, once the world's largest. Because the decline of Columbia Basin salmon has had significant adverse effects on cultural, historic, and religious values, since 1980 the region has made efforts to reverse the decline, in what has been termed as the world's largest biological restoration program. This article critically surveys efforts to recover Columbia Basin salmon under the Northwest Power and Endangered Species Acts, the Northwest Forest Plan, and unimplemented plans developed by Columbia Basin tribes with treaty fishing rights and the federal Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project. The article suggests that the proliferation of such plans is a product of the inability (or unwillingness) of the federal agencies managing the Federal Columbia Basin Hydroelectric System - by far the chief cause of salmon mortalities - to appreciably reduce the adverse effects of their operations. Thus, these salmon restoration plans have become amphibious, focusing on upriver habitat issues that might protect salmon spawning, rather than change project operations in the mainstem river, which would increase power costs. The article suggests that this upland focus may produce a significant change in public land management in the Columbia Basin, although the result may not be a material improvement in the plight of the salmon.

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