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A Leap for the Coho

July 24, 1995

Mighty rivers are the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest. The Columbia, the Hood, the Klamath and dozens more form vast natural funnels through which melting mountain snows roil their way to the Pacific Ocean along a vast stretch from Northern California to Canada.

Harnessed by dams, they provided cheap hydroelectric power, which in turn spawned a vigorous aluminum industry. The aluminum mills, in their turn, formed the basis of another rich industry--airplanes. Snowflakes that fall high in the Cascades ultimately make Boeing jets in Seattle.

But there has been a high price, in degradation of the environment. The most obvious barometer of this is the precipitous decline in the proud silver-and-blue coho salmon, for 10,000 years important to the Indians of the region. But it is not only Native American values or weeping over another lost species that is at issue. The decimation of the coho is a marker for wider environmental degradation visited on inland streams and rivers to which coho return to spawn and on the adjoining lands.

The federal government has finally moved to save the coho. Last week the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed to list as threatened three populations of coho along a 700-mile coastal and inland stretch from Santa Cruz, Calif., to northern Oregon. Spawning populations there have dwindled to 10% of their historical highs, forcing an indefinite moratorium on fishing and the loss of 10,000 jobs. The proposal probably will dwarf that for the northern spotted owl in its potential for political heat. The proposal is actually a disappointment to many environmental groups, which had hoped for a full "endangered" listing and inclusion of Washington state waters too. The lesser designation of threatened gives the government more flexibility to work with state agencies, private landowners and tribes to devise a conservation plan.

Probably this was the only politically feasible tactic for the Clinton Administration, given congressional threats to gut the Endangered Species Act and the fact that 90% of affected land in California and 50% in Oregon is privately owned, much of it by timber companies whose logging operations cause erosion that kills fish eggs. It is interesting that California loggers did not oppose the listing. The situation offers an opportunity to both government agencies and private parties to prove that environmental problems can better be resolved through cooperation than confrontation.

Coho salmon should be preserved not just because they are good to eat and fun to catch. They are good for the land, carrying from the sea nutrients that fertilize soil and streams and support natural predators. In other words, they are a key link in the food chain and are ultimately important to the economy. Their decline served legitimate economic needs of the West in the past. Their revival will serve the same purpose in the future.

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