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The Planet

The Planet
October 1998 Volume 5, Number 8

Club's Upstream Fight for Salmon

by Jenny Coyle

Fish ladders help salmon swim upstream to spawn, but many juveniles die when they pass through the hydropower turbines en route to the ocean.

Zac Zachary worked for six years as a commercial salmon fisherman off the coast of California - until the fish population declined, the season was shortened and he could no longer make a living. Now he bakes bread for a local restaurant and writes letters and makes phone calls to push for the protection of salmon habitat.

Zachary became a salmon activist when he worked on a government-funded project for unemployed fishermen. For two winters he conducted stream surveys, sometimes on private land logged by timber companies.

"We saw places where bulldozers ran through the creek, or trees were cut in buffer zones next to a creek. These activities make the water too silted, or too hot, for salmon to survive," he said. "Fish are an important part of a system, and when you take away pieces of a system, there's a domino effect. Pretty soon you're in a lot of trouble."

The dominoes are already falling: In California, 60 percent of salmon runs are extinct, 35 percent are at risk of extinction and only 5 percent are stable. Virtually every run has been listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. In the Pacific Northwest, where the Columbia River and its main tributary, the Snake River, once boasted 16 million salmon annually, there are now fewer than 250,000, and some species are already extinct.

The Sierra Club has two campaigns to protect and restore salmon populations - the Wild Salmon Campaign in the Pacific Northwest and the Wild Salmon Forever campaign in California.

"Salmon symbolize a healthy ecosystem," says Wild Salmon Forever coordinator Elyssa Rosen, based in San Francisco. "They are the source of nutrients for wildlife from the ocean to alpine headwaters, the staple of the diet of Pacific coast indigenous communities and the historic basis of many coastal communities."

And as Wild Salmon Campaign coordinator Jim Baker in Pullman, Wash., points out, "The salmons' needs are specific: the clear, cold oxygen-filled water in the mountain streams where they are born, and the smorgasbord of the ocean where they grow to adulthood before swimming back upstream to spawn the next generation." These needs are threatened mainly by habitat destruction and hydropower.

A current focus of the California campaign is protecting the Headwaters Forest in the northern coastal region of the state. Owned by Pacific Lumber Company - a family-owned enterprise until it was taken over by Texas financier Charles Hurwitz - the forest comprises some of the state's last stands of ancient redwood trees, as well as hundreds of miles of salmon streams. Trouble is, the company violated forest-practice rules 250 times in the last three years, and bad logging almost always destroys salmon habitat.

The state and federal governments plan to jointly purchase and protect 7,500 acres of Pacific Lumber's 200,000-acre holding. Integral to the deal is the approval of a habitat conservation plan (HCP) that outlines how the company will harvest trees on its remaining lands while protecting the threatened coho salmon and other species. But the draft plan released in July is severely flawed, says Rosen. For example, the HCP allows the company to log 30 feet from streams where the salmon live - less than one-tenth the buffer zone recommended by the federal government's own study team.

At press time, the California Senate had passed a Headwaters funding bill that contained some improvements, but still failed to adequately safeguard salmon runs and clean water, said Rosen.

Meanwhile, the campaign in the Pacific Northwest is working to "protect the best and restore the rest," Baker says.

"The best" is a 50-mile stretch of the Columbia River called the Hanford Reach. So far it's free of dams and reservoirs because on the river's south shore stands the nation's highest concentration of abandoned nuclear reactors.

"The salmon in this last remaining free-flowing stretch are sustaining a healthy population and annual harvest," says Baker. "Our first priority is to protect this reach, which is threatened by soil erosion and polluted runoff from irrigated agribusinesses nearby." The campaign also focuses on hydropower dams. First, conservationists want to see the reservoir behind 100-foot-high John Day Dam on the Columbia River lowered by 40 feet to re-establish 35 miles of a productive stretch of river.

Another priority is to retire four dams on the Lower Snake River. Fish ladders help salmon get back upstream past the dams to spawn (sometimes traveling 1,500 miles), but many juveniles die when they pass through the hydropower turbines as they swim to the sea. Of course, once they're retired, the dams can't produce electricity and barges can't use the navigational lock system to reach upriver ports. These two impacts are cited by foes of the proposal, but proponents believe they can be successfully overcome.

"Scientists are convinced that if we take these steps, the salmon will not go extinct, and the fishing industry will be revived," says Baker.

"This isn't just about being able to make a living," says Zac Zachary. "It's about saving an ecosystem that we can't afford to lose forever."

To Take Action: Contact Vice President Al Gore at (202) 456-2326; vice-president@ Tell him that the draft Pacific Lumber HCP is severely deficient and ask him to use the federal government's best available science in the HCP to protect salmon in California. Write the White House,
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,
Washington, DC 20500
and the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington, DC 20230.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in the Department of Commerce has promised it will decide on the fate of the Lower Snake River Dams by 1999. Demand a timely decision and ask them to retire the four dams. Dams can't be retired unless Congress appropriates money, so send copies of your letters to your senators and representative.

For more information: Contact Elyssa Rosen at (415) 977-5726; or Jim Baker at (509) 332-5173; nw-cb.field@
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