By Marcy Stamper

Although the Okanogan County commissioners learned a lot about enhancing habitat for endangered fish, volunteer efforts that reduce erosion, and upgrades to fish screens that benefit irrigators, it is too early to answer the commissioners’ most pressing questions about salmon recovery—how much is enough, and how is success measured?

Despite a recent surge in local projects, the region is only seven years into a 30-year salmon-recovery plan, so it’s not possible to assess the long-term effect of intervention, said Derek Van Marter, executive director of the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board (UCSRB).

Van Marter was one of almost a dozen representatives from government and tribal agencies and nonprofits that focus on salmon recovery who were invited by the county commissioners early this month to talk about their work to improve conditions for endangered spring Chinook, steelhead and bull trout.

Everyone hopes fish populations recover so the fish can be removed from the endangered species list, said Van Marter. But the decision about when that goal has been met rests with two federal agencies, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The recovery plan also sets a high bar, since all three listed species must meet population targets in all Upper Columbia watersheds, from the Methow to the Entiat, he said.

Van Marter and other speakers also pointed to the complex ingredients of salmon recovery, which relies not only on biological science, but also on social and political science—that is, on the voluntary cooperation of property owners and land-use planners, and on the commitment of four key “H” sectors to recovery efforts—habitat, hydropower, hatcheries and harvest.

Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell works with Van Marter as the county’s representative to the UCSRB. In an interview after the meeting with the recovery organizations, Campbell said the discussion had been helpful in broadening commissioners’ understanding about the range of projects and the diverse groups that manage them.

“But there’s one question I always ask — is this a good return on taxpayer money? Are there other approaches to salmon recovery to get a better benefit?” said Campbell.

“Taxes go up, and the state and federal governments don’t meet their budgets, so social services, education and health services take a back seat,” he said.

Van Marter and others pointed to the infusion of money into the local economy from recovery projects, which Van Marter said contribute $2.30 for every dollar spent. Chris Johnson, president of the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, said his group had spent almost $11 million on recovery and habitat projects in the past four years, including hiring contractors and buying supplies. The foundation currently has a staff of seven.

“Salmon money circulates—it is a benefit,” said Campbell. “But it takes it out of one pocket and puts it into another.”

Campbell believes many of these recovery efforts contribute to higher electric bills and reduce other jobs in the natural-resource sector.

At the meeting, Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy questioned changes in the science guiding habitat restoration, noting that years ago wood was removed from rivers to help fish, whereas today wood is being put back into the water. A biologist from Yakama Nation Fisheries acknowledged that scientific understanding has changed and that the earlier approach is now seen as misguided.

“My very first concern is the welfare, health and safety of the citizens of Okanogan County,” said commissioner Jim DeTro, who provided examples of cumbersome regulations and prolonged approval processes that can interfere with other industries that could create jobs, such as mining.

DeTro also wondered about what appeared to him to be a double standard. “You move one rock in the Okanogan River and you’ve got 45 agencies come down on you. But in the Methow, you’ve got excavators in the water,” he said.

Van Marter emphasized that the main approach to recovery has employed voluntary, rather than regulatory, measures.

Campbell said the discussion would be valuable in his role on the UCSRB and as the commissioners work with agencies and represent the people of the county.

“I would love to put myself out of a job and for my organization to go away—it would be a huge success story,” said Van Marter.