Herrera Beutler: Bill supports local efforts to aid salmon

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In the Pacific Northwest, salmon play a unique role in our culture, our recreational lives and our economy. Unfortunately, the numbers of salmon and steelhead in our backyard have dwindled over several generations. Currently, 13 different runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin are listed as either “threatened” or “endangered.”

In 2000, Congress tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with enhancing salmon habitat in this region with the goal of strengthening these species’ numbers. This agency is responsible for building and maintaining some of our nation’s largest infrastructure projects, including the Bonneville Dam. However, some of the smaller projects within its salmon habitat mission are often left undone because of the cumbersome approval process and complexity within the Army Corps.

While the agency has made admirable progress toward boosting salmon and steelhead populations over the last decade, I know we can do better. I’ve joined with my Oregon colleague, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, to lead a charge in Congress to put these small projects in the hands of local groups with extensive experience. If we do, I believe the fish and our entire region will benefit.

At the end of October, I introduced the Fundamentally Improving Salmon Habitat— or FISH — Act with Blumenauer as the lead co-sponsor. This legislation would allow the Army Corps to use existing funds for grants to local salmon habitat enhancement groups to undertake smaller projects — those costing $2 million or less. Projects typically include building off-channel refuges, installing woody debris and removing invasive plant species that are harmful to fish runs.

These local groups have been undertaking salmon habitat restoration projects in Southwest Washington and Oregon for several years, and their work has provided tremendous value to salmon restoration efforts. In fact, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership, the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board and the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group have completed more than 450 ecosystem restoration projects over the last 13 years.

That’s a lot to accomplish for nonprofit organizations that are often operating on shoestring budgets. Many of these groups are housed in small and cheap office space with borrowed furniture, but are still managing millions of dollars in restoration work yearly. They have the expertise, but not necessarily the funding, to take on more projects. Meanwhile, the Army Corps has the appropriated funding but isn’t set up to tackle these low-cost but extremely valuable restoration efforts. The FISH Act would be a win-win for both groups.

Securing local community buy-in and participation are half the battle when it comes to lasting and sustainable salmon restoration efforts. Our local salmon enhancement groups have done a tremendous job with both. For instance, local students were recruited to help the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group populate a new habitat at Pleasant Valley Park. And by building a track record of working in a considerate and cooperative fashion, these groups helped the FISH Act earn the support of the Farm Bureau and American Land Rights Association — organizations that put a high priority on ensuring private property rights are protected.

The FISH Act is a common-sense, bipartisan solution. While empowering groups from within our region, it would keep Army Corps oversight in place, allowing the agency to provide technical guidance for activities necessary to protect, monitor and restore fish and wildlife habitat. By using existing resources wisely, we can continue to improve salmon restoration efforts.

With the squabbling and gridlock in Congress often dominating the news, it’s more important than ever to find common ground and get to work on priorities where we agree. Blumenauer and I belong to different parties and we disagree on many issues, but we are both public servants for the Pacific Northwest. I’m pleased to team up with him in offering this bill to better protect the salmon that help sustain our economy, our communities and our way of life.