The Obama administration has picked the chief architect of one of the failed Columbia Basin salmon restoration plans of the past to implement a new plan it hopes will finally pass legal muster.
GRANTS PASS — The Obama administration has picked the chief architect of one of the failed Columbia Basin salmon restoration plans of the past to implement a new plan it hopes will finally pass legal muster.
Will Stelle takes over June 1 as northwest administrator of NOAA Fisheries Service in Seattle.
He held the post under the Clinton administration from 1994 to 2000, when many of the 13 protected stocks of Columbia Basin salmon were first put on threatened and endangered species lists. The government was also struggling to find a way to make hydroelectric dams, which are an important source of power in the region, less lethal to fish.
In a teleconference Friday, Stelle said he is not surprised none of the salmon that went on the endangered species list have come off.
Noting that it takes time for trees to grow and watersheds to be restored, Stelle said he thought more progress has been made than he had expected with programs to restore salmon in the Columbia Basin, Puget Sound and coastal areas. People no longer deny salmon need help but more time is needed, especially with the added challenges of global warming, he added.
Stelle oversaw development of the 2000 plan for balancing dams against salmon, known as a biological opinion, which was struck down by the same federal judge weighing the current plan, U.S. Circuit Judge James Redden. Four of the five plans have failed to survive legal challenges.
The 2000 biological opinion acknowledged that it may be necessary to breach four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington. That position was tossed out by the Bush administration, and revived in the Obama administration's revisions to the 2008 plan now in court.
A revised version of that plan, addressing problems identified by Redden, is due May 20.
Salmon advocates and Rep. Doc Hasting, R-Wash., were both unhappy with Stelle's appointment.
"Our members are nervous and concerned because of the interactions of the past," said Nichole Cordan of Save Our Wild Salmon. "We are hopeful and looking forward to working with someone who is unafraid of the science, is smart and is up front."
Hastings, who opposes dam breaching, sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke asking for detailed disclosures from Stelle about any conflicts of interest that may have developed during the last 10 years he worked as a Seattle natural resources attorney.
"With this selection, the administration has apparently decided to take a step backward into the controversies of the past, rather than selecting a new person who could lead this agency into a fresh start," Hastings wrote.
The state of Oregon is also challenging the salmon plan. Mike Carrier, natural resources adviser to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, said he was glad to see someone in the job with the experience and intellectual capacity to deal with the complex scientific issues.