The Bush administration's plan to protect endangered salmon stocks in the Northwest is shaping up as a battle between a neoconservative political agenda that seeks to roll back landmark environmental protections and the scientific exigencies of the Endangered Species Act.
Last month, U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled that Bush's plan violated the Endangered Species Act. Then on June 10, Redden, still steaming from the administration's "exercise in cynicism," dropped a judicial bomb he had held in reserve.
Despite a projected $69 million in lost revenue, he ordered the Bonneville Power Administration to execute a "summer spill" from four dams to help juvenile salmon reach the sea. After noting that the government's best salmon-recovery efforts have brought native fish stocks to the brink of extinction, Redden challenged the stakeholders -- the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Bonneville Power Administration, Indian tribes, conservation organizations and scientists -- "to take advantage of this moment" and solve the problem.
Like previous recovery plans for the Columbia River basin, Bush's is no less a manifesto for the status quo stakeholders. Asking politicians to abandon their short-term self-interests to solve long-term problems may be asking the impossible. Consider the history:
* In 1994, Redden's predecessor, Judge Malcom Marsh, threw out the Clinton administration's salmon-recovery plan because it protected status quo stakeholders at the expense of the fish.
* President Clinton's new plan, submitted in July 2000, repeated the omissions and violations of his first, and Redden issued an injunction against its implementation.
* In 2001, fish counts on the Snake River were perilously low. By then, two stocks were declared extinct, and five more were listed as endangered.
* In 2003, Redden ordered the Bush administration to resubmit a plan in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
* In May, Redden declared the new Bush plan grossly inadequate and granted an injunction requested by Columbia River Indian tribes, conservation groups and the state of Oregon, ordering "heavy spills" of dam water this summer.
Federal efforts to rescue threatened salmon stocks began in the mid-1980s. Twenty years and $4.5 billion later, the largest anadromous fish runs in the world are fast approaching the point of no return on the extinction curve. The government's ignominious record is proof that politicians are unequal to the task of enforcing the Endangered Species Act.
Ideally, Redden will have the final word, and he will use it to cut the political Gordian knot so that Columbia River salmon will continue making their extraordinary journey from the mountains to the sea.