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Posted by on December 23, 2004 at 17:51:50:

The Bush Administration has created yet another new barrier to efforts to restore endangered Pacific salmon and steelhead runs throughout the U.S. west coast. In a proposal released Tuesday, 30 November, by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Administration proposed reducing critical salmon and steelhead habitat protections along rivers and streams from Southern California to the Canadian border by up to 90 percent from its current designation.

The proposal was sparked by a lawsuit from the National Association of Homebuilders and others which argued that the initial designation of critical salmon and steelhead habitat was excessive, attacking NMFS for failing to adequately assess economic impacts. "Critical habitat areas can be subject to restrictions on activities such as development, logging and grazing -- and Tuesday's proposal also emphasized that potential impacts on such economic activities would be weighed in the consideration of critical habitat," said the San Francisco Chronicle in a 1 December article, "Salmon Habitat Face Cuts." Environmentalists and fishermen’s groups were shocked by NMFS complete neglect of the necessary habitat for the specific life cycle of these anadromous fish. The Los Angeles Times reported, "[the proposal] failed to meet the agency's own scientific criteria for what is needed for the once-abundant fish to return to healthy population levels." The Bush Administration proposal would narrow protections for critical habitat to only those waterways currently occupied by federally protection salmon and steelhead populations already near extinction, with no regard to the fish’s historic range nor protection of any habitat that could be re-colonized, the Seattle Times reported. The proposal was criticized as an abandonment of species recovery as a goal for ESA listed salmon and steelhead, in favor of simply maintaining the current near-extinction status quo. Many of the reasons for exemptions from protection were political, rather than scientific. Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman commented, "The shrinking itself is alarming, but the purpose of critical habitat is to get us to the point of recovery. How are we going to have enough habitat to get there if we limit it to only where the fish are now?"

The proposal was based on highly inflated estimates of economic costs of critical habitat protections to landowners, while completely ignoring environmental and economic benefits from restored salmon fisheries and less polluted watersheds. Failure to consider those benefits violates directives of the Government Accounting Office (GAO), which requires costs-benefits analyses to include full consideration of benefits as well as costs. Additionally, the proposal exempts large tracts of public lands, citing other protection rules. Other actions of the Bush Administration in separate processes, however, are weakening the very rules relied upon for these exemptions.

The principal architect of the new critical habitat plan was Mark Rutzick, a lawyer who represented the timber industry in previous salmon protection lawsuits and who has consistently opposed ESA protections for salmon for his past clients. Rutzik is now a political appointee within NOAA charged with supervising ESA salmon protections. He is also a principal architect of the NMFS proposed policy to count hatchery fish as legally equivalent to wild fish for all ESA purposes (see Sublegals, 10:06/03).

For downloadable copies see: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/1salmon/salmesa/crithab/CHsite.htm. The proposal was published in the Federal Register in two packages: for the Northwest Region (Oregon, Washington and Idaho), on 14 December 2004 (69 Fed. Reg. 74572, et seq.); for the Southwest Region (California), on 10 December 2004 (69 Fed. Reg. 71880, et. seq.). The published regulations for both NMFS regions are available from that site. For the schedule of meetings in the Northwest Region see: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/1salmon/salmesa/crithab/CHmtgs.html. Additional meetings must be requested in writing by 28 January 2005. Information specific to the critical habitat designations in California can be found at: http://swr.nmfs.noaa.gov/salmon.htm. Additional meetings for the California stocks must be requested in writing by 24 January 2005.

For media coverage see, 1 December San Francisco Chronicle article by Glen Martin, "Salmon Habitats Face Cuts; ‘Critical areas to be reduced by 80 %" at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/12/01/MNG2CA4EFO1.DTL. The 1 December Los Angeles Times article by Kenneth R. Weiss, "Salmon and Steelhead May Lose Protections" at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-salmon1dec01,0,860036.story?coll=la-home-headlines. Seattle Times article by Craig Welch, "Bush to dramatically reduce areas protected for salmon" at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2002105390_salmon01m.html.

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