SEATTLE -- Several environmental and fishing groups sued the federal government Tuesday, trying to force officials to strengthen rules intended to protect Northwest and California wild salmon runs from extinction.
"Salmon are in serious trouble, yet the federal government is not doing what the law requires to ensure salmon survive and recover," said Patti Goldman, lead attorney on the case from Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "Instead they propose to continue to allow the harm and claim to have recovery at the same time. That won't work, and it's illegal."
Government officials said they are prepared to defend the rules in court. A timber industry group accused the environmentalists of inviting chaos by trying to get federal courts to take over salmon protection.
The National Marine Fisheries Service issued salmon-protection rules in June, after 14 salmon and steelhead species were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The rules tell people, companies and governments what not to do if they want to avoid being sued under the Endangered Species Act for harming salmon and steelhead. They're called the 4(d) rules, named for the authorizing section of the Endangered Species Act, and apply to nearly 160,000 square miles in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.
The rules do something new by giving local and state governments more flexibility. If local and state governments approve their own plans to regulate activities such as logging, road-building and urban development in a way that protects salmon, the federal government will let them be "exempt" from the 4(d) regulations.
NMFS has tentatively approved one such exemption in Washington, the Forest and Fish Agreement. The agreement, passed by the Washington State Legislature last year, limits logging on hillsides and near streams on 8 million acres of private land. By following the agreement, loggers on private land won't have to worry about getting sued under the Endangered Species Act for harming salmon.
The federal government points to the Forest and Fish Agreement as a model for other states, but environmental groups say it's a sweetheart deal for the timber industry and a bad deal for salmon. Their lawsuit asks the court to block the timber exemption.
"If we are serious about recovery, the rule should encourage state and local governments to develop science-based salmon recovery plans that work," said Joan Crooks of Washington Environmental Council. "Instead, this rule encourages a political version of 'Let's Make a Deal."'
Brian Gorman, NMFS regional spokesman, said he wasn't surprised to see a lawsuit targeting the new approach to the 4(d) rules.
"Whenever you do something new and different under an existing law, you're bound to run into lawsuits," Gorman said. "We'll see what the courts think. We think this is good for salmon."
Gorman said the agency decided to allow exemptions to encourage local planning and to avoid the kind of top-down, federal management about which the public often complains.
He said that the lawsuit won't affect the salmon rules when they take effect in January.
Gov. Gary Locke defended the Forest and Fish agreement, which was reached after two years of difficult, state-led negotiations.
"This is a good agreement, the scientists support it and I feel confident it will be upheld in court," Locke said in a written statement. "My approach to restoring salmon habitat in the forests, farmlands and urban areas has been by negotiation rather than litigation whenever possible."
The strongest outcry came from the Washington Forest Protection Association, a timber industry group. They pointed out that environmentalists participated in the Forest and Fish negotiations in the beginning, but dropped out midway.
"I never understood why they walked out of the negotiations. I guess they thought they could do better in a courtroom," said Bill Wilkerson, executive director of the Forest Protection Association.
In the complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, the environmental groups say they quit the negotiations because the focus had shifted from saving salmon to appeasing the timber industry.
Wilkerson countered: "What environmentalists proposed when they were involved in negotiations was a one-size-fits-all approach. That is hardly science."
The Washington Environmental Coalition, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, the Pacific Rivers Council and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations actually filed two lawsuits on Tuesday.
The first challenges the exemption for the Forest and Fish agreement in the 4(d) rules under the Endangered Species Act. The second challenges the Forest and Fish exemption on the grounds it does not comply with the Clean Water Act.
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