Questions About Salmon Are Directed Upstream

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

SEATTLE -- The Bush administration -- having made it hard for federal scientists to talk publicly about global warming -- appears to have decided that loose lips are also bad when they talk about salmon.

The Washington office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- the agency responsible for protecting endangered salmon -- has instructed its representatives and scientists in the West to route media questions about salmon back to headquarters. Only three people in the entire agency, all of them political appointees, are now authorized to speak of salmon, according to a NOAA employee who has been silenced on the fish.

The order was issued the day after an article appeared last month in The Washington Post quoting federal technocrats making positive statements about two recent decisions -- one by a federal judge, the other by federal scientists -- that challenged previous Bush administration policy about protecting salmon in the troubled Klamath River, which flows out of Oregon into California.

The judge, in a direct repudiation of administration policy, ruled that federal water managers, to protect fish during drought years, must limit the amount of water removed from the Klamath for irrigation farmers.

The scientific decision, written by experts from NOAA and the Interior Department, said that hydroelectric dams on the Klamath should either be removed or be rebuilt in a way that allows salmon passage. This decision surprised environmentalists, because the Bush administration has often said that dams on some Western rivers are part of the "environmental baseline" -- and must never be removed.

In the April 2 article in The Post, Brian Gorman, spokesman in Seattle for NOAA Fisheries, commented optimistically on the effect of the two decisions: "People may look back on this past week and say that is when things really turned around for fish in the Klamath." A senior biologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a similarly positive statement.

Officials in Washington, though, apparently were not pleased.

"The request at the time was we route questions on salmon to D.C.," said Bob Lohn, Northwest regional administrator for NOAA.

He said that the order from headquarters came April 3, the day after the Post article appeared, but that he did not believe there was any connection between the two.

At NOAA headquarters in Washington, spokesman Jeff Donald said the order came down because "some folks were trying to consolidate a little bit and make sure everything we were putting out was accurate and as up to date as possible."

Kristen L. Boyles, a staff lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, was quoted in The Post in April saying, "Credit is due the government scientists who are finally saying the right things and the politicians who are allowing them to say it."

Asked about the new order that does not allow them to speak about salmon, Boyles said: "I see D.C. trying to control the message. The scientists who know the problems are out here on the ground."

-- Blaine Harden

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