Portland, Ore. - Calling it an "insurance policy" for Pacific Northwest salmon, the Obama administration on Tuesday offered up a tougher conservation plan for the fish that includes climate-change monitoring and the "last-resort" possibility of removing dams.
The plan submitted to a federal judge for approval was a revised version of a Bush administration plan that had been in the works for years, but which was rejected.
Reaction to the new plan was sharply divided, echoing a debate that stretches back decades over balancing Columbia River Basin fish survival and hydroelectric dams: It either goes too far or not far enough.
Environmentalists say it does little to enhance the Bush administration plan the judge has already called inadequate, while business groups worry it could lead to drastic measures such as dam removal on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington state.
"We appreciate that President Obama took the time to look at this, but we see little more than a veiled attempt to pass off the old Bush plan as a new one," said Greg Stahl, assistant policy director for Idaho Rivers United.
Another environmentalist was even more critical, calling the new plan "illegal and scientifically unsound."
Nicole Cordan, legal and policy director of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, said the Obama administration acknowledged the analysis in the Bush plan was uncertain and potentially overly optimistic but stuck with much of it.
"Again, we've had eight years of these same actions and same kind of work, and what we're seeing is a whole lot of money spent and not a whole lot of impact happening on the ground," Cordan said.
Most of the $750 million spent each year on salmon conservation comes from Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers. The Portland-based BPA is the federal power marketing agency that shares salmon recovery management with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The plan submitted by NOAA to U.S. District Judge James Redden on Tuesday is called a "biological opinion" that sets the requirements for ensuring salmon survival under the Endangered Species Act.
The chief of NOAA, former Oregon State University professor Jane Lubchenco, said the additional measures recommended by the Obama administration take into account the uncertainties mentioned by critics and tries to adjust for them.
She noted the new plan would immediately expand research and monitoring, and set specific biological "triggers" for strong conservation measures if numbers of endangered or threatened fish fail to reach certain benchmarks.
"It's definitely not business as usual," Lubchenco told The Associated Press in an interview.
Lubchenco, widely considered a top expert in marine ecology, defended the scientific models used to draft the plan but said more research would be required to make sure it works and to adapt it to variable conditions, including climate change.
She called for an end to litigation over the plan in order to move forward with conservation measures that may not enjoy unanimous support but resulted from a regional consensus, including many American Indian tribes.
"We believe the time has come to get out of the courtroom," Lubchenco said.
The biological opinion has been a work in progress since 2000, and has twice been rejected by Redden who, at one point, threatened to take over management of Columbia River Basin hydroelectric dams.
But some elements of the plan, including a recommendation that the Corps of Engineers study the possible removal of the four lower Snake River dams, raised serious concerns with U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.
"The Obama administration has put dam removal back on the table and delivered just what dam removal extremists have been demanding," said Hastings, whose committee has jurisdiction over fish recovery and federal hydropower dams.
Lubchenco, however, emphasized the possibility of breaching any dams was considered only "an option of last resort."
Steve Wright, Bonneville Power Administration chief, repeated Lubchenco's cautionary note, adding that hydroelectricity produced by the dams is not only relatively cheap, it does not cause any carbon dioxide pollution, considered the main cause of global warming.
"Climate change is always lurking in the background" of any environmental policy decisions, Wright said.
Reaction among other members of the Northwest congressional delegation was mixed.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, said the Obama administration made a number of improvements over the previous proposal but he worries about more litigation stalling salmon recovery efforts.
His spokeswoman, Julie Edwards, said Merkley agrees with Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho "that a regional dialogue among all the stakeholders will be necessary to forge a lasting solution."
Eds: A copy of the biological opinion is available at http://www.salmonrecovery.gov
Associated Press Writer Matthew Daly contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.
Obama Administration Wants More Salmon Protection