Farm­ers want salmon pro­tec­tion rules waived

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Keith Ridler

BOISE, IDAHO» A group that rep­re­sents farm­ers is call­ing the costs of sav­ing im­per­iled salmon in the largest river sys­tem in the Pa­cific North­west un­sus­tain­able and is turn­ing to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to side­step en­dan­gered species laws.

The Columbia-Snake River Ir­ri­ga­tors As­so­ci­a­tion wants the gov­ern­ment to con­vene a Cabi­net-level com­mit­tee with the power to al­low ex­emp­tions to the En­dan­gered Species Act. Known as the “God squad” be­cause its de­ci­sions can lead to ex­tinc­tions of threat­ened wildlife, it has only gath­ered three times — the last 25 years ago dur­ing a con­tro­versy over spot­ted owl habi­tat in the North­west.

The ir­ri­ga­tors as­so­ci­a­tion is frus­trated with court rul­ings it says fa­vor fish over peo­ple, claim­ing the com­mit­tee could end years of le­gal chal­lenges over U.S. dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and bring sta­bil­ity for ir­ri­ga­tors, power gen­er­a­tors and other busi­nesses that rely on the wa­ter.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups call the re­quest a pub­lic­ity stunt and say it could hurt fish­ing com­pa­nies and oth­ers that rely on healthy runs of fed­er­ally pro­tected salmon and steel­head.

The as­so­ci­a­tion sees hope in a se­ries of pro-in­dus­try en­vi­ron­men­tal de­ci­sions by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. His ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­scinded an Obama-era rule that would shield many small streams and other bod­ies of wa­ter from pol­lu­tion and de­vel­op­ment, en­acted poli­cies to in­crease coal min­ing on fed­eral lands and pro­posed giv­ing Western states greater flex­i­bil­ity to al­low de­vel­op­ment in habi­tat of sage grouse, a threat­ened bird.

Dar­ryll Olsen, as­so­ci­a­tion board rep­re­sen­ta­tive, said the ir­ri­ga­tors re­quested the com­mit­tee dur­ing former Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ten­ure but got nowhere. He said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been en­cour­ag­ing dur­ing talks, lead­ing to a for­mal re­quest last month for a meet­ing with In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke.

“What we’re ask­ing for is that the sec­re­tary give direction to the (In­te­rior) Depart­ment to work with us to re­view the steps for im­ple­ment­ing the God squad,” Olsen said.

The ir­ri­ga­tors group, which has 120 mem­bers grow­ing food crops in Wash­ing­ton state and Ore­gon, ex­pects to meet with Zinke soon, Olsen said.

Joseph Bo­gaard, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of a coali­tion of con­ser­va­tion, com­mer­cial, sport fish­ing and busi­ness groups called Save Our Wild Salmon, blasted the ir­ri­ga­tion as­so­ci­a­tion’s re­quest.

“It’s a ter­ri­ble idea that will de­liver great harm to the peo­ple and busi­nesses of the Pa­cific North­west,” said Bo­gaard.

This year, fish counts at dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have been well be­low the 10-year av­er­age, which bi­ol­o­gists blame on droughts in 2014 and 2015 and warm­ing ocean con­di­tions.

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