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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coho Woes

Air Date: Week of

The federal government is about to add another stock of Pacific salmon to the Endangered Species List. The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that the coastal Coho is threatened from northern California through southern Oregon. The listing means land use restrictions will be imposed on millions of acres from the coast to interior mountain ranges. But the Coho listing could have been even broader. It could have included the entire Oregon coast and with it the nation's most productive timber lands. The federal government instead dedicded to let the state of Oregon try its own plan to recover Coho. If the state plans works it could write a new chapter in the history of the endangered species law. Ley Garnett reports.


CURWOOD: Yet another stock of Pacific salmon is expected to be added in the near future to the US Endangered Species List. The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that the coastal Coho is threatened, from northern California through southern Oregon. The listing means land use restrictions will be imposed on millions of acres from the coast to interior mountain ranges. But, the Coho listing could have been even broader. It could have included the entire Oregon coast, and with it the nation's most productive timberlands. The federal government, instead, decided to let the state of Oregon try its own plan to recover the Coho. If the state plan works, it could write a new chapter in the history of the Endangered Species law. Ley Garnett reports:

GARNETT: Coho salmon were once a staple of the nation's Pacific Coast fishery. In Oregon alone, historically, more than a million Coho returned to the state's coastal streams to spawn. Last year, the run had dwindled to just 80,000. Even so, that was an improvement from 5 years ago, when only 20,000 fish were counted. That slight rebound is one reason the federal government decided not to list the Coho in most of Oregon. Will Stelle, of the National Marine Fisheries Service, says the other reason is Oregon's $30 million state recovery plan.

STELLE: This is probably the most comprehensive conservation effort that, that I'm aware of, ah, under the Endangered Species Act, undertaken by a state, in one fell swoop. This is not unprecedented in type; but in scale, absolutely.

GARNETT: The Oregon plan focuses on improving the health of the state's coastal streambeds.

KITZHABER: I tell you, there's nothing like a pair of rubber boots in the mud.

[Splashes, background talking]

GARNETT: On this typically rainy early spring day, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber splashes through a media tour, of a streambed restoration site. Governor Kitzhaber listens as Walt Weber of the state Fish and Wildlife Department, explains how the waterway is being repaired.

WEBER: This project consists of 8, big trees placed across the, stream channel, both, above the culvert here, and downstream, throughout this reach, and, it's designed to trap a bunch more wood coming down here. And in this case, it's actually formed a dam, and it's trapped a bunch of spawning gravel above the dam; you can't see that; and it raises the water so that now--

GARNETT: Fish biologists say logging is the main reason that Coho salmon runs have faded. Erosion, from logging roads, and denuded hillsides, have destroyed fish spawning areas by smothering them with mud. In this project, logs placed in the streams, help restore the deep water pools, that newly hatched fish need, to rest and grow, before swimming to the ocean. Like most of the coastal Coho's habitat, this stream is on private land, and the restoration project is an inexpensive voluntary effort, financed through a state grant. Governor Kitzhaber says this kind of voluntary partnership, between timberland owners and the state, is a lot more effective, than a federal endangered or threatened listing. He says while a listing would prevent land owners from causing any more harm, it couldn't force them to make improvements.

KITZHABER: The record, ah, that the National Fisheries Service has, of actually compelling private land owners to do things under listings, is not very stellar. My experience, from representing a rural, ah, actually a southern Oregon constituency, is, you get people to do a lot more, when they feel, that they have some ownership in it, and that they're doing it because they want to do it, not because they're being told to do it.

GARNETT: It took Governor Kitzhaber 18 months to negotiate the Coho plan with environmentalists and the timber industry. The industry agreed to pay almost half of the cost, but only if Oregon could convince the federal government not to list the fish. Jim Hunt is a forest engineer for Willamette Industries, the largest timber company in the Coho's northern range. He says there's good reason for his company to work with the state.

HUNT: Willamette is very interested in the overall health of the forests. They want to be able to produce trees forever. And so, it's only in their best interests, to, to keep the forests healthy.

GARNETT: Mr. Hunt says the timber industry wants to avoid the kind of restrictions which could come with federal intervention.

HUNT: If the Coho was listed as threatened, under the Endangered Species Act, I believe that, the federal government would try to increase the amount of stream buffers that are required on the streams, and that would take away some of the production, of timber that, that we would have.

GARNETT: Mr. Hunt says his company fears federally mandated buffers could be up to 6 times wider than the 50 feet the state now requires. The National Marine Fisheries Service says part of its decision not to list the Coho here, is based on an expectation that Oregon will toughen its state forestry regulations, especially when it comes to stream buffers. But Jeff Dose says that without federal requirements, the plan just won't work. Mr. Dose is a fisheries biologist for the US Forest Service in Oregon, but says he's speaking out as a private citizen, and a concerned scientist.

DOSE: It's the lack of any mandatory change, would lead me to believe, that any changes would, necessarily be voluntary. And those are going to be probably driven more by, economic conditions and market conditions than by, ecological considerations.

GARNETT: Not only has the Oregon Coho plan split scientists, it has also driven a wedge through the state's environmental and fishing communities. Some groups are endorsing the plan. Others have filed notice of intent to sue to force federal protection. Mark Hubbard, of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, calls the state plan a sellout to the timber industry that's too narrowly focussed.

HUBBARD: What the latest and best science is telling us, is that, a program that's based on in-stream restoration projects is simply not enough. We need to look at the up-slope activities of road-building and clear-cutting. The Oregon Coho plan does not do that.

GARNETT: But Governor Kitzhaber remains undaunted. He believes his plan is a breakthrough for the region, that will hold up in court.

KITZHABER: And I think people throughout the West are looking for wins. They're looking for ways that we can get past the us versus them conflict, to how we, move on and have our natural resource industry and also have a healthy ecosystem, and I think this is one of the, concepts that can take us there.

GARNETT: The National Marine Fisheries Service has promised an annual review of Oregon's efforts, and says it won't hesitate to step in, if the Coho aren't making enough progress. Meanwhile the federal agency is already taking a heavier hand in managing the recovery of the Coho in California, which has no comprehensive plan to deal with its dwindling runs. The Fisheries Service has declared California Coho threatened, so unlike their northern neighbors, coastal landowners south to Santa Cruz will be barred from disturbing their watersheds where Coho live. That means restrictions on livestock and logging in coastal areas, including some already hotly contested redwood forests. The Fisheries Service is urging California and other states, to follow Oregon's lead, and develop their own salmon conservation plans. The agency is already reviewing a plan from Maine, designed to avoid listings, of Atlantic salmon. For Living on Earth, I'm Ley Garnett, in Portland, Oregon.



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