Environmentalists poised to sue as feds release new salmon rules

Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2000

SEATTLE -- The federal government issued new rules today to protect West Coast salmon and steelhead, but even before they were made official, the new regulations had a full spectrum of critics.

The new rules clarify restrictions on land and water use in order to protect 14 different species of endangered fish. Previously, actions that might harm those fish were reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Property-rights advocates say the rules go too far in their attempt to protect the fish. And environmentalists are preparing to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service on grounds the rules won't adequately protect endangered and threatened fish.

The NMFS rules tell managers of public and private lands -- from Seattle homeowners to farmers and loggers -- how to comply with the Endangered Species Act and avoid being sued under it. The rules apply to 14 salmon and steelhead populations whose habitat stretches 160,000 square miles across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.

``We'll look at those activities that clearly kill salmon, like bulldozers in streams with spawning salmon, and we'll look to other federal, state or local conservation efforts to address more marginal activities that may, nonetheless, have cumulative effects on the listed fish and their habitats,'' said William Stelle, head of the Northwest regional office of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The steelhead rules will be enacted in 60 days, but the rules for salmon won't become effective for six months.

Based on its reading of a draft version of the rules released earlier, the Washington Environmental Council contends the regulations are full of loopholes.

``A rule with these big holes in it is going to allow continued harm to salmon,'' said Becky Kelley, council spokeswoman. ``It's not going to lead to recovery.''

The council has prepared a letter notifying the government of its intent to sue under the Endangered Species Act, Kelley said. If the group isn't pleased by today's announcement, it will send the letter.

Environmentalists also have accused the fisheries service of foot-dragging, and are considering a separate lawsuit to force action on the salmon rules sooner.

Property-rights groups say the rules, with their potential to affect everything from lawn-watering to farming, go too far -- and they also might sue.

``This is a fundamental abuse of federalism,'' said Rob Rivett, principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has already sued the government to challenge the listing of coho salmon as threatened. ``If they violate property rights, we will very carefully consider litigating that.''

Six members of Washington's congressional delegation sent a letter last Wednesday asking for more time for local governments to come up with plans to meet the rules' requirements.

The rules will define what the Endangered Species Act means when it says listed populations of salmon and steelhead are not to be harmed, harassed, pursued, hunted, killed or captured.

NMFS held several contentious public hearings and received tens of thousands of comments on the so-called 4(d) rules, named for the authorizing section of the Endangered Species Act. Officials say the final version will be more detailed than draft versions that were criticized as vague.

To increase public understanding, the fisheries service plans to hold workshops and publish a citizen's guide.

The fisheries service has promoted the rules as a new direction in wildlife conservation. Local governments and industries will be able to prepare their own, specialized protection regulations under the 4(d) rules.

In Washington state, the timber industry and the state have worked out a ``Forest and Fish'' agreement, which NMFS has approved. The agreement requires timber companies to give up timber along streams and steep hills, in return for tax breaks and 50 years of regulatory certainty.

Similar timber agreements are in the works in California and Oregon but have not yet been approved by the fisheries service. On the Net: National Marine Fisheries Service: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov

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