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Judge Redden is All We've Got

by Editorial Board
The Daily Astorian, December 13, 2007

Salmon recovery delayed is extinction

If a few more Columbia-Snake salmon species sputtered into extinction in the next few years, some high-ranking federal officials would be pleased as Punch.

Or so it has sometimes seemed to observers of the Pacific Northwest salmon recovery process. Lame plans have been floated, one after another. They increasingly look like token efforts designed for political effect instead of effectiveness. One could almost hear Capt. Renault telling his Casablanca underlings to "round up the usual suspects."

There has been no closer observer of this peculiar business than U.S. District Court Judge James Redden. And no one has been more irked about how the government's systematic pattern of excuses and delay has crippled recovery efforts.

This week, after having digested the latest plan, Redden put the government on notice that it stinks as bad as a rotting salmon a month after spawning. He is out of patience. Unless agencies dramatically augment their plan with additional substantive steps, Redden indicated he may be forced to intervene in making sure dam operations comply with the Endangered Species Act.

School desegregation battles in the 1960s and '70s showed that judicial management of complex laws is fraught with difficulty. Although preferable to allowing officials to thumb their noses at legitimate national statutes, this struggle showed that judges must make every effort to force officials to do their own jobs.

Having absorbed those lessons, it is a testimonial to Redden's frustration that he is willing to use this threat as a whip. The political cost would be very high for emptying reservoirs to restore adequate in-stream flows for migrating salmon. But at some point, what other option does Redden have, when confronted with years of dawdling?

The Bush administration has backed into this corner of its own free will. It might have achieved judicial buy-in for one of its salmon plans from a less engaged and concerned judge, or by making more of a good-faith effort. In the meantime, it has successfully preserved dam-friendly policies for nearly two presidential terms. Redden is right in ending this game.

It would be inaccurate to pin this mess entirely on the president's industry-approved set of appointees. Clinton salmon plans were no great shakes, either. It also bears remembering that substantive changes in dam operations are adamantly, if quietly, opposed by a host of regional politicians. In this setting, a new president will not necessarily do any better.

Ultimately, it isn't up to a judge but to Northwest citizens to force our leaders to make agencies obey the law. Justice delayed is justice denied; salmon recovery delayed is extinction.

Editorial Board
Judge Redden is All We've Got
The Daily Astorian, December 13, 2007

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