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River task force marks 18 years


Published June 25, 2004


It was 18 years ago when Keith Wilkinson was appointed to a newly formed federal task force assembled to restore salmon runs in the Klamath River.

As a paid consultant for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, he represents the state on the Klamath River Basin Fisheries Task Force.

Now retired from a career as a river guide and salmon trawler, he's the only original member left on the task force that includes representatives of local, state, federal and tribal governments and various other interests.

Established by Congress in 1986, the task force was allocated $1 million per year for 20 years to spend on projects it deemed most likely to help bring back salmon runs that had dwindled.

"For the first few years there was a lot of posturing and gallery play," said Wilkinson, who brought his experience as a river guide and a commercial fisherman to the table.

And then the group got to work.

Over the past two decades, the 15-member task force has funded 320 projects at a cost of $11.2 million.

The task force, which rotates the location of its meetings around the region, met in Klamath Falls this week to approve another $1 million annual budget. The budget includes $558,700 for projects, ranging from fuels reduction and stream bank fencing to studies and education, plus another $441,300 for administrative costs.

The panel has received some criticism for the money spent on administrative costs, but members said it's expensive to get the group together in one place, rent meeting spaces and pay for reports and evaluations of potential projects.

The task force has raised public awareness about the declining health of salmon runs, Wilkinson said.

"Fifteen years ago salmon were pretty much a non-issue," he said, "as opposed to today - they are a major issue."

The creation of the task force came in response to dwindling salmon runs in the late 1970s, Wilkinson said.

Although the early focus of the group was to see how much on-the-ground work it could get funded and done, he said now the goal is to lay a foundation of scientific information that others can build on.

The task force has brought together people and groups that used to be on opposite sides of the Klamath water war. Wilkinson said the members have learned that they can get more of what they want by working together than by trying to go their own.

"As long at there is friction between the upper and lower Basin, the government is scared to death to join one side or another," he said.

Although the task force hasn't met the goal of a revived fishery, many of its members say it has been a success.

"We have provided a forum where the diverse perspectives of the Basin can come together," said John Engbring, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's California and Nevada region and task force chair since February 1999.

But salmon stocks have yet to reach optimum levels, he said.

"I think there is still a lot of work that has to be done."

The task force's to do list includes figuring out how diseases and parasites on the river are affecting salmon runs, creating a comprehensive restoration plan for the Basin and reviewing what has been done and figuring out what still needs to be done.

Irma Lagomarsino, supervisor of the National Marine Fisheries Service field office in Arcata, Calif., and a task force member for the last three years, said the group has funded restoration plans in many subbasins in the watershed, such as the Scott and Shasta. In many cases those plans have yet to be carried out.

"There is a laundry list of things that those plans identify as needed for restoration," she said.

The task force has two more annual budgets to allocate, and six more meetings, two of which will be in Klamath Falls.

The panel will spend $10,000 to produce an "accomplishment report" reviewing its work over the past two decades.

What happens once the sun sets on the task force is still in the air. Congress could call for an extension, or it could call for a larger, revised group that would take its place, or there could be no group at all.

U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson and Earl Blumenaurer, Democrats from California and Oregon respectively, last spring introduced a bill calling for a larger task force, but the legislation has yet to pass through Congress.

Wilkinson said he would want to continue work on reviving the Klamath fisheries if there is some kind of continuation of the task force. He said the group provided a place for the groups to find common ground and move forward.

"I guess there are not a whole lot of differences in philosophy, but there are differences in how to get there," he said.

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