by Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian
In a sharp course change from current federal policy, the Obama administration said Wednesday it wants far more of Oregon and four other western states set aside to protect a native, wide-ranging fish called the bull trout.
It would mean a more than fivefold increase in the miles of rivers and acres of lakes dedicated as critical habitat for the threatened species, and could mean more restrictions on recreation and development on federal lands, which cover roughly half of Oregon.
Decades of development, dam-building, logging and grazing have pushed the fat and speckled fish, which needs cold, clean water to thrive, down to less than half of its historic range, according to government scientists. After the species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, the federal government was obligated to protect areas the fish needs to recover.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups fought over the habitat decision for years. It is costly, both in the added workload for agencies managing the land; and could result in decreased economic activity, such as logging.
In 2005, the Bush administration designated only a fraction of the critical habitat federal scientists had suggested.
A Department of Interior Inspector General’s report later found that a Bush appointee, Julie MacDonald, interfered with the critical habitat decision on bull trout and other species. In the Klamath Basin, for example, MacDonald forced the reduction of miles of streams set aside for bull trout from 296 to 42 miles, the report said.
Obama’s proposal Wednesday would greatly increase what the Bush administration made law. And it’s latest reversal of scaled-back Bush-era environmental policies by the Obama administration, following similar reinforced protections for spotted owls and roadless forests, and stepped up greenhouse gas regulation.
“It means that we’re going to use the scientific recommendations rather than the political recommendations to determine what’s best for critical habitat for bull trout,” said Jack Williams, senior scientist for the conservation group Trout Unlimited.
Bull trout critical habitat would go from 3,780 to 22,679 stream miles and 110,364 to 533,426 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Montana. In Oregon, the miles of streams would increase to 3,655 from 943. Most of those miles wind through federal land, especially that managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
If the proposal goes through, federal agencies that manage forests for recreation and logging; grasslands for grazing, or hydropower dams for electricity would have to take a closer look at whether their actions degrade waterways in huge portions of the West where the trout resides.
“It’s kind of like putting a big yellow caution flag along these streams and lakes that are habitat for bull trout,” Jack Williams, senior scientist for the group Trout Unlimited.
The Forest Service, meanwhile, estimates the increased consultation will increase its workload by 10 to 15 percent during reviews of proposed actions in the Northwest alone.
“It increases the range of the critical habitat in which we need to consult,” with the wildlife agency, said Tom Knappenberger, spokesman for the Forest Service in Portland. “It also increases the types of things we have to consult for.”
Such consultations would come at a cost of between $100 and $140 million over the next 20 years, the government said.
Federal agencies are already obligated to protect many of the same waterways because of federal clean water laws and the presence of endangered salmon or steelhead.
But a critical habitat designation raises the bar, said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Montana group Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which sued the government to create the designation.
Logging on a hillside, for instance, could cloud the trout stream below with sediment.
“If it negatively impacts the streams, those would no longer be allowed,” Garrity said.
The agency is accepting comments on the proposed change until March 15th.