The Lack of Fiscal Management in Existing Salmon Recovery Programs

A 1994 audit by the Inspector General of the U.S. Energy Department found that nearly all of the $300 million in fish and wildlife contracts awarded between 1990 and 1993 were awarded without competitive bidding. The audit also found that BPA didn’t get what it paid for in three of the five specific contracts reviewed, worth $413,000, and in some cases paid twice for the same work.47 This was the tip of the iceberg.

The audit did not move a single reporter in the Pacific Northwest to conduct further investigations. Not until 1996 did a reporter finally act. Linda Mapes works for the Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review, and found a rich lode of material. Until others followed her lead with somewhat pale imitations of her work, she was the only reporter covering the story.

In addition to uncovering a total failure of management controls, she discovered extravagant spending that rivals the Pentagon and its legendary $200 toilet seats. She reported that BPA

“pays for a four-state police force to patrol the Columbia and Snake for poachers and habitat vandals. It’s a full time force of more than 35 officers, outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, including an $85,000 fixed-wing airplane with $392,339 in heat-seeking radar equipment; night vision goggles at up to $5,011 a pair, $1,999 binoculars; infrared spotlights at $2,500 each; guns and body armor.

“Bonneville bought the troops a $127,999 three-bedroom house near Stanley, Idaho, and a $59,812 modular home. It also sprang for pickups; snowmobiles; all-terrain vehicles; a minivan; kayak; motorcycles; a $32,999 motor home; three $30,000 Zodiac boats; numerous chase boats and patrol boats with various outboard motors, radar and trailers; a $60,000 one-ton surveillance truck with covert intelligence equipment, and two horses for $3,400. The saddles and tack cost $4,600 and the horse trailer another $6,000.

“In 1995, the force spent $3.6 million, made 1,484 arrests and tracked down 139 illegally caught salmon.”48

Ms. Mapes neglected to report that all this spending was not only wasteful, but also illegal. When it empowered BPA to spend money for fish and wildlife protection, Congress took care to specify that such expenditures “shall be in addition to, not in lieu of, other expenditures authorized or required from other entities under other agreements or provisions of law”.49 In other words, states should be taxing their own citizens to enforce their own fish and wildlife laws, not mooching off the electric ratepayers.

There is every reason to believe that is what they are doing. In February 1997, the Acting Chief of the State of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Program, Ron Swatfigure, sent his officers a memo about “coding time” saying “I am sure that 6% of our time dedicated to habitat enforcement is not an accurate reflection of [the] reality of our time spent on this [reimburseable] issue”.50 Apparently that didn’t work, because two days later he issued a directive that “all officers working the Columbia and Snake River system need to be coding ALL time to BPA”.51

The festival of pork barrel spending on salmon has spread throughout the Columbia River Basin. The 1995 Annual Report of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation boasts that "Salmon Corps" workers, in addition to restoring fish habitat, “cut and delivered 38 cords of firewood to tribal elders during 1995”.52

Everyone involved with the process recognizes the problem, but no one has any real incentive to clean it up. One of the most vocal is Tom Vogel, a BPA biologist. He says “I don’t see any accountability anywhere. I hate to see money go down a rat hole. . . . this is a crime. This thing has never gone anywhere because we don’t know where we want to go. I can’t tell what we are trying to achieve.”53 Witt Anderson of the Corps of Engineers is equally pessimistic: “I don’t see us turning the corner anytime soon.”54

Sometimes spending failures come from misconceptions as to what should be done to assist salmon. Environmentalists now claim that “[f]rom the 1940s into the 1970s fishery agencies viewed wood in streams as unnatural”, so that “up to 90 percent of agency funds intended for fish habitat restoration were used for the removal of jammed debris”.55 While this is frequently cited as a criticism of early habitat efforts, there was some basis for the idea that debris was blocking access to salmon habitat. As with most things, details matter. Centralized directives to remove logs would not only remove debris that blocked access to spawning habitat, but also remove logs that were not blocking access, and creating small pools useful for juvenile salmon.

The saga of fishery agency efforts to remove woody debris, followed by the “back to nature” policy of leaving it there, is one of the many unexamined aspects of salmon recovery programs. Even the National Research Council couldn’t come to a conclusion in its Upstream report, instead merely noting that while “removal and salvage logging of woody debris accumulations from streams w[as] encouraged and required”, “[s]ince the early 1980s, the practice has largely been curtailed”.56 Did these early programs succeed? Are the new ones succeeding? No one bothers to measure the effects, and no one knows.

For many years, electric ratepayers have funded a program to repair and replace irrigation screens. These programs have never been tested. As the National Research Council pointed out, “[n]o study has balanced the net benefit of screens and comparison to the lost rearing habitat in irrigation canals and ditches downstream [sic] from the screens”.57 While they probably do some good, no one has tried to measure or quantify it.

Other failures have plagued habitat programs. Writer Joseph Cone cited one project to dump gravel in streams to replace habitat damaged by logging, where “the contractor had dumped the wrong size rocks into the stream. The rocks were the size of bowling balls, which . . . no chinook could move. Nevertheless, the project had been chalked up as ‘completed successfully’.”58

Investigating habitat spending, Linda Mapes of the Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review found that

“BPA spent $938,990 to improve fish habitat along Oregon’s Fifteenmile Creek near The Dalles from 1987 to 1989. The utility hired three independent scientists to review the project. Their 1993 study found no documented increase in returning fish, and said farmland erosion around the project and high water temperatures below it could wipe out any gains from the work. After that review, the utility spent another $1.7 million on the stream to continue the project . . .”59

Regrettably, Ms. Mapes never bothered to find out who was getting all this money, which probably would have made for an even better story. A similar project has been going on in the John Day River for nearly 20 years.60

The National Research Council concluded that “[d]espite the large amounts of time and money that have been devoted to habitat restoration and enhancement by federal agencies, state agencies, and others, few projects have been shown unequivocally to increase salmon populations”.61

If BPA had an Administrator with any interest in discharging BPA’s statutory responsibility to manage fish and wildlife spending, these sorts of problems might be remedied. But Congress gave BPA an excuse for mismanagement: BPA is supposed to act consistently with the fish and wildlife program proposed by the Northwest Power Planning Council, no matter how irrational that program is. The gubernatorial appointees to the Council typically think that their fish and wildlife program should include the pet projects of local politicians and agencies.

For a while, when Jim Luce was the head of Bonneville’s Fish and Wildlife Division, he tried to put pressure on the fishery agencies to actually deliver results. As the son of a former Administrator of BPA, he had a long-term, responsible perspective for BPA. In early 1992, he could see the fishery program was getting out of control, with spiraling costs and no clear measurement of benefits. He got BPA’s customers involved in a process called “Programs in Perspective”, soliciting their input on critical policy questions. Those questions included: “To what extent have BPA ratepayers satisfied their obligation ‘to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife’, and how do we ‘get credit’ for their efforts?”.62 And “What is the appropriate responsibility of other federal and state agencies to assume financial responsibility for fish and wildlife recovery?”63 He wondered whether BPA should commence a huge program for hatchery construction “before final decisions are made with respect to the appropriate mix of wild and hatchery fish”.64

The result? The state and tribal harvest managers complained bitterly to the BPA Administrator. BPA’s customers did not support Mr. Luce, and he was removed from his position. The Administrator hired a new Fish and Wildlife Division Head, Robert Lohn, who used to work for the Northwest Power Planning Council. Mr. Lohn seems to have adopted a formal policy of capitulation to the Council’s pork barrel prioritization. According to him, questioning state and tribal spending involves “a balancing act of how to ask hard questions and maintain proper respect for other sovereigns”.65 His way of striking the balance is to never ask the hard questions, much less cut off the state and tribal programs that have wasted ratepayer money for years.

There is law that could allow private citizens to act directly to help clean up this mess: the False Claims Act. Successful litigants under the Act can get up to 30 percent of the amount the government recovers as a bounty. If you know of some outright fraud in the fish and wildlife spending, give me a call. I’ll be glad to help you try and collect the bounty. Of course, the courts would probably decide that the Act cannot be applied to the state fishery agencies and tribes that are at the root of the problem. The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is supposed to prevent states from being sued in federal court, and the tribes are immune from suit. Law breaks down when the lawbreakers are government agencies and officials.

47 “Has $3 billion effort helped salmon?”, Daily Journal of Commerce (Seattle), Aug. 6, 1996.

48 L. Mapes, “River of No Return”, The Spokesman-Review, July 28, 1996, at H7 (reprint ed.)

49 Section 4(h)(10)(A) of the Northwest Power Act, 16 U.S.C. 839b(h)(10)(A).

50 Memo, R. Swatfigure to All Enforcement Officers, Feb. 19, 1997.

51 Memo, R. Swatfigure to Enforcement Captains, Feb. 21, 1997 (emphasis in original).

52 1995 Annual Report, at 11.

53 Quoted in “Has $3 billion effort helped salmon?”, Daily Journal of Commerce (Seattle), Aug. 6, 1996.

54 Quoted in id.

55 J. Cone, A Common Fate 18.

56 NRC, Upstream at 49 (Prepub. ed.)

57 NRC, Upstream at 201 (Prepub. ed.).

58 J. Cone, A Common Fate 13. Mr. Cone’s protagonist, Gordon Reeves, does not blame biologists who make such certifications, however, because they are “well intentioned”. Id.

59 L. Mapes, The Spokeman-Review, Sunday, July 28, 1996, at H10.

60 W. Ebel, pers. comm. (May 5, 1997).

61 NRC, Upstream at 185 (Prepub. ed.).

62 BPA Programs in Perspective, Technical Appendix, Chapter 7, at 39 (May 1992).

63 Id. at 41.

64 Id. at 42-43.

65 Quoted in L. Mapes, “River of No Return”, The Spokeman-Review, Sunday, July 28, 1996, at H10.

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