PORTLAND, Ore. – The choice between counting pennies and counting fish drew heated debate in the battle over salmon on Wednesday as fishermen, environmentalists, Indian tribes and utilities lined up to tell the Northwest Power and Conservation Council they are worried about the closure of the regional Fish Passage Center.
The fish center was created in 1984, four years after Congress approved the Northwest Power Act and created the regional council to help balance energy development with fish and wildlife protection in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Salmon and other fish are counted as they travel past reporting sites on the Columbia and Snake rivers, and the data are sent back to the Fish Passage Center in Portland for analysis.
Last month, Congress approved an appropriations bill containing a provision by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, that cut funding for the center and directed the council and the Bonneville Power Administration to find another agency or organization to take over the job within 120 days.
The Craig provision drew an immediate outcry from tribes, fishermen and conservation groups, who accused the Idaho Republican of political payback for fighting the Bush administration in court over salmon policy.
“It’s really disturbing to see this legislation has come about,” said Kathryn Brigham, secretary of the board of trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Brigham told the council Craig had targeted the fish center because he was unhappy that its figures were used by U.S. District Judge James Redden last May to reject a $6 billion Bush administration plan to improve the Columbia River Basin hydroelectric system. Redden ruled that the plan failed to adequately protect salmon.
After Brigham and several other people testified, council members Jim Kempton and Judi Danielson of Idaho both went to Craig’s defense, scolding Nicole Cordan, the policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon.
“I think you’ve used the senator’s name in vain,” Danielson told Cordan after Cordan said Craig had avoided public debate on closing the center by attaching a rider to the appropriations bill.
Cordan responded, “With due respect to the senior senator from Idaho, I think he made a big mistake … it’s clearly a bad way to make public policy.”
Kempton bristled at the criticism, and told Cordan: “I think you exceeded the bounds of discussion.” He promised if there were any more “castigations of congressmen, I will object.”
Most of the testimony included pleas to maintain the fish center in some form as an independent agency, separate from BPA and the council, and based in one place rather than scattering its duties to multiple agencies or even contractors.
“Our region is plagued with the collective inability to link data,” said Sharon Kiefer, anadromous fisheries manager for Idaho Fish and Game. “Let’s not exacerbate the situation.”
Other Northwest senators, including Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, all Democrats, have written letters supporting a transition that maintains the fish center’s functions.