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Salmon Swimming Against Logging Tide

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in USA Today, June 22, 1992.

Former President Jimmy Carter says bill moving toward House floor must be made strong enough to ensure survival of Northwest's forests, fish.

Along with thousands of other Americans who enjoy fishing, camping and other outdoor experiences, I am deeply concerned about further threats to the Pacific Northwest from destruction of the last 10% of the region's old-growth forests. The highly publicized altercation over the endangered spotted owl is just one small part of the overall environmental crisis.

Scientists and economists now tell us that if the ancient forests are lost, there's a good chance a majority of the salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest will disappear, too. And with them goes an important cog in the region's economy - the $1 billion sport and commercial fishing industry providing jobs to 60,000 people. Salmon also hold a unique cultural position as a symbol of the region's wilderness character.

The loss of salmon stocks already has been devastating, and prospects for recovering the lost stocks are not encouraging. The National Marine Fisheries Service has listed four salmon species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental scientists are urging similar action for at least three more salmon species. Moreover, according to the American Fisheries Society, some 106 populations of West Coast salmon are extinct, and at least 214 salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest are at risk of extinction.

Several factors explain this decline, but perhaps the most universal and insidious is the decades of excessive logging on public lands throughout the region. Most of the spawning and rearing habitat for wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest is located on, or directly downstream from, national forests and other federal lands. Much of this habitat has been severely degraded by logging of old-growth forests and associated road building, which increase the amount of fine sediment in streams by as much as 1,000 times. This smothers spawning beds and severely disrupts the feeding patterns of the young salmon. Old growth is the anchor of healthy salmon streams, providing permanent sources of stability, shade and nutrients.

Now, the Bush administration wants Congress to approve a plan that would waive key federal environmental laws to allow clear-cutting on 4 million acres of ancient forest in Oregon and Washington, habitat for the owl, salmon and nearly two dozen threatened or endangered species.

Salmon would absorb some of the worst impacts. Clear-cutting includes removal of shade trees along stream banks and the loss of downed trees in streams, which provide salmon with in-stream pools and side channels used for shelter, rest and protection.

The Bush plan, if executed, would pose a serious threat to forests, fish and families that rely on the non-timber bounty of the ancient forests. The dilemma over ancient forest protection long ago lost its two- dimensional character. What is now at stake is the survival of a total ecosystem that embodies a variety of values and benefits that typify the Pacific Northwest's unique quality of life.

The watersheds that provide habitat for salmon are also the source of clean water for hundreds of Northwest communities and thousands of businesses. They offer recreational opportunities forming the backbone of a multibillion-dollar tourism industry in the region.

Fortunately, we still have time to act to protect the ancient forests. A scientific panel chartered by Congress identified 137 watersheds in the west- side ancient forests that should be protected. The House Agriculture Committee already has approved its version of a bill to protect the Pacific Northwest ancient forests, and the House Interior Committee should issue a bill soon. Any version of the legislation put before the House should urge reduced logging and road building to protect 90 fish stocks identified as at risk of extinction in the ancient forest ecosystem. A strong bill must be passed to ensure the survival of the forests and fish.

By establishing permanent protection for the last 10% of the ancient forests, we create an opportunity to repair an ecosystem and chart a course for sustainable economic development in the region. New ways must be found to cope with the increasingly complex problems facing the ecosystems in our public lands.

Protection of the ancient forests and watersheds, and all of their jewels, such as salmon, is not a choice but an imperative.

Jimmy Carter is former President of the United States.

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