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A new test for Oregon's salmon plan

Return of coastal coho to the endangered species list puts landowners' recovery efforts in the spotlight

February 09, 2008, The Oregonian

Oregon's unique state-federal partnership for salmon recovery was left floating belly-up this week after a federal decision to return the state's coastal coho to the endangered species list.

Collapse of the joint program comes as a disappointment and puts a sizable blemish on an important experiment that began a decade ago under former Gov. John Kitzhaber. The state-federal component of the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds was a promising and creative attempt to rebuild the dwindling species through local and mostly volunteer efforts to restore salmon habitat.

Now coastal coho will be protected by more rigid provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act. There's nothing inherently lamentable about that, but we believed that Oregonians, particularly the thousands of landowners who toiled voluntarily for years on restoration projects on scores of Coast Range streams, deserved more time to show that the experiment could work.

Oregon coho have been on and off the endangered list throughout many years of bitter court battles. The species was last delisted in 2006 after Kitzhaber's successor, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, struck a deal with the Bush administration to give the state its unusual role in leading recovery efforts.

Fishing and conservation groups filed suit to relist the species and prevailed big-time last July when a federal magistrate blasted the rosy analysis the state had used to secure its agreement with the White House. The coho recovery report cannot be taken seriously, she said, and three months later a higher court upheld that view, directing the federal government to redo its listing decision based on "best available science."

On Monday the clock ran out. NOAA Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for salmon recovery, announced the relisting of the Oregon species, saying the tight timetable imposed by the court left it too little time to research the state's novel and optimistic theory that coho are resilient enough to rebound from very low numbers.

Understandably, plaintiffs cheered the agency's decision, but it's hard to join in the celebration. After all, the Northwest already has several federally protected salmon species, and they haven't exactly been exploding back into healthy populations.

Now Oregonians will be spectators to a different kind of salmon recovery experiment. It will show who was right -- conservationists who claim they've been highly successful in getting private landowners to help improve habitat for fish, or state officials who worry that federal protection of the coastal coho will make Oregon landowners less willing to participate in voluntary programs.

Everyone, of course, should hope the conservationists are right. Winning federal protection for coastal coho would be no win at all if it means slowing Oregon's on-the-ground progress in restoring the species' habitat.

 
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