Coho  On  'Threatened'  List
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August 4, 1998
© The Register-Guard - Used with permission

Oregon coastal coho salmon were listed by the federal government as a threatened species Monday, forcing the state to scramble to protect its plan that relies on voluntary efforts to save the fish.

The National Marine Fisheries Service grudgingly listed the coho after court rulings disagreed with its earlier position to keep the salmon off the list as a way to give Oregon's plan a chance to work.

Runs of salmon of all kinds have been falling for years due to a decline in ocean conditions and loss of habitat on land. More than a million coho once returned to Oregon's coastal streams, but last year only 24,000 wild fish came back. This year's return is expected to be even lower.

Environmentalists won a lawsuit forcing the federal agency to list the coho as a threatened species, which carries fines of up to $25,000 for actions that hurt fish or their habitat.

Just last year, the logging industry agreed to a special timber tax to fund the Oregon plan on the condition that the coho not be listed.

``The Oregon plan is based largely on ordinary people's willingness to voluntarily do the right things,'' said Ray Wilkeson, vice president of the Oregon Forest Industries Council.

"If the perception is no matter what we do, the federal government will come in and impose its will on us, some people could throw up their hands and say, `Why bother?' We hope that doesn't happen.''

Since the Oregon plan was adopted last year, the Clinton administration has entered into similar agreements with Maine to save Atlantic salmon and California to save steelhead.

Depending on how appeals of the coho ruling fare, the other agreements could be vulnerable to legal challenge.

The Oregon plan depends on voluntary habitat restoration efforts by private landowners, who control 65 percent of coho habitat. Nearly half the $32 million in funding each year comes from the timber tax. Its loss could jeopardize the matching funds that guarantee a $100 million federal grant for habitat restoration.

But Gov. John Kitzhaber said Oregon would continue with its salmon restoration efforts.

``The point of the Oregon plan was never simply to avoid a listing, it was to help recover coastal coho,'' he said.

Kitzhaber called Oregon's voluntary plan superior to anything the federal government might come up with under the Endangered Species Act, noting that previous listings of Columbia River chinook and coho salmon on the south coast haven't succeeded in recovering the runs.

"They don't have a stellar track record of stepping up and doing something," Kitzhaber said of federal agencies in charge of enforcing the act.

The governor said he would be willing to hold a special legislative session to allow the timber industry to continue making payments into the state's coho recovery plan. If Republican leaders agree, Kitzhaber said the Legislature could reconvene soon to take up the coho issue along with a pending showdown over where to locate a new women's prison.

However, Senate President Brady Adams, R-Grants Pass, said he thinks it's doubtful an agreement could be reached to have a special session on the timber tax.

``It's unlikely,'' Adams said. ``I wouldn't bet on a special session.''

Besides the governor, others with a stake in the coho outcome pledged their continued support of the state's recovery effort.

"With Endangered Species Act protection finally in place, we can now move forward with recovery of the fish with every tool available, not just some of them," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which supports the federal listing.

Gary Springer, who represents private woodlot owners, also said his organization was committed to "the grand experiment."

But he added that letting the federal government handle the effort "sets up a real minefield of federal regulatory issues."

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