The National Marine Fisheries Service announced that the risk of extinction for Columbia Basin salmon has been sharply reduced. Meanwhile, unhappy irrigators in the basin are suing the agency for "overestimating" the salmon's peril.

While at odds with each other, both the agency and the farmers rest their case on three years of abundant fish runs. But three years of data is scientifically inconsequential. Favorable, but cyclical, ocean conditions have had more to do with recent good runs than anything the federal government has done inland.

And that raises a problem: Momentarily good ocean conditions mask our failure to protect and restore habitat and water quality that will decide if native salmon survive. Virtually every independent long-range study shows that Northwest salmon runs are a mere trickle of what they were even 50 years ago.

If you want to know why the fish runs have collapsed, read a good book on "Manifest Destiny."

Leaders and politicians used the phrase in the mid-1800s to promote and glorify Western settlement: Euro-Americans felt they had an innate and patriotic right to "tame" the wilderness and the living things residing in it.

Manifest Destiny became a torch that lit the way to American expansion. It also became a morality play in which wildlands were considered dark, chaotic, wasteful and even evil - until settlers could civilize and subjugate them to logging, mining, agriculture, and other useful development.

In the seminal book, Wilderness and the American Mind, author Roderick Nash wrote that Manifest Destiny sloganeers also wrapped themselves in religion:

"It was the 'hand of God' that pushed the nation westward and caused wilderness to surrender to ax and plow."

With God and the American flag arrayed against them, millions of wild buffalo and other wildlife didn't have much of a chance.

In less doctrinaire ways, Manifest Destiny remained alive as the nation grew. In the 1930s and '40s, FDR's New Dealers said that the waters of the Columbia River would be "wasted" if they reached the ocean and were not harnessed for electricity and irrigation.

I was reminded of this history when I read a new study showing that two-thirds of the marshes and side channels of the Lower Columbia River - prime salmon habitat - had been lost to 100 years of diking and dam-building on the river's lower freshwater reach.

The study, by researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University, was just published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Oceans. It found that marshes along the lower Columbia are vital nurseries, especially for endangered chinook salmon.

The study also found that through the years dikes alone have wiped out more than half of the marshy, shallow water habitat while converting nearly 7,000 acres into farmland.

One of the study's authors, David Jay, an associate professor at OHSU's Oregon Graduate School of Science and Engineering, sees some good news in this.

"There are probably areas where dikes can, over time, be removed," he said, indicating that this would cost less than altering water flow-management on the Columbia River's hydroelectric dams and denying the region millions of dollars worth of power.

Theoretically, Prof. Jay is right. But, alas, he doesn't appreciate the political firestorm that would surely erupt if lands were removed from agriculture and local tax bases were to be eroded.

"What we've done is clarify what the tradeoffs are," the researcher countered. "Society has to make the value judgments."

Just so. And from the 1800s on, Americans have made a string of value judgments. One of those judgments is that in a competition between salmon and us, we will not compromise but prevail.

It's our Manifest Destiny.

Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer and professor. He served for 18 years in Congress and is a former majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives. E-mail him at:


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