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Bipartisan bill would empower local nonprofit restoration groups to complete habitat improvement projects, protecting northwest salmon

WASHINGTON, DC – Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) joined with Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) to introduce the Fundamentally Improving Salmon Habitat (FISH) Act today, a bill that would improve efforts to restore salmon habitat in the Northwest.  They were joined by Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Congressman Kurt Schrader (D-OR) as original cosponsors of the legislation. 

In 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked by Congress to carry out salmon restoration projects in the Northwest.  However, small but critical projects are often not undertaken through this program because the process is too cumbersome for the large federal agency to carry them out in a cost-efficient manner.  Meanwhile, well-established local organizations have developed significant expertise and experience in completing small salmon habitat restoration projects throughout Southwest Washington and Oregon.  The FISH Act would designate any salmon restoration projects that cost less than $2 million as ‘small’ and authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to administer grants to local ‘lead entities’ to develop and construct these projects. 

Congress authorized $30,000,000 in 2000 for ecosystem restoration in the Lower Columbia River and Tillamook Bay estuaries in Washington and Oregon through Section 536 of the Water Resource Development Act (WRDA).   The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with developing plans for projects in conjunction with states and lead entities.   The goal of providing block grants to groups that are better equipped to handle these projects is to ensure than more salmon restoration can be completed.

Significant expertise and experience from local ‘lead entities’

Over the last 13 years, more than 450 ecosystem restoration projects have been completed in the Lower Columbia region by these local nonprofit fish enhancement groups.  Currently, 13 species of salmon in the Columbia basin are protected by the Endangered Species Act including chinook, coho, and steelhead.  Projects to improve salmon restoration include building off-channel refuges, installing woody debris, and removing invasive plant species.   

The lead entity group consists of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, the Tillamook Bay Estuaries Partnership, the Lower Columbian Fish Recovery Board, and the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group.  In addition to the lead entities support for the FISH Act, groups like the American Land Rights Association and Washington Farm Bureau have expressed their appreciation that the legislation takes care to respect property rights while balancing the need to improve salmon restoration efforts.   

“Wild salmon and steelhead play a centrally important role in our economy and our culture here in the Pacific Northwest,” said Jaime.  “It’s an honor to team up with Congressman Blumenauer on this issue where we strongly agree -- local groups can play a vital role in federal habitat restoration efforts to protect salmon.  Giving local organizations control over smaller recovery projects will complement the Army Corps’ large-scale work, ultimately serving the recreational, economic and environmental interests we have in a healthy salmon population.”

“I am pleased to support this legislation, which will allow much needed habitat restoration projects to move forward and help numerous species,  including ESA listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin,” said Rep. Blumenauer. “The Army Corps and its local partners will also be able to target resources more effectively and efficiently, which, in an era of federal budget tightening, is a must-do.”  

“This legislation will substantially enhance salmon recovery and ecosystem restoration efforts in the Lower Columbia.  It recognizes and retains the important role of the Corps of Engineers in undertaking large and technically complex projects,” said Jeff Breckel, Executive Director of the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board. “But, it also creates a role for local organizations, such as the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, in implementing smaller, less complex projects.  The Board has a proven program of working with federal and state agencies, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, local governments, rural communities, landowners, and non-governmental organizations to get work done on the ground in a timely and efficient manner.  Incrementally, these smaller projects make a significant contribution to salmon recovery and ecosystem restoration, build local support and participation, and leverage limited resources.  We appreciate Rep. Herrera Beutler and Rep. Blumenauer’s initiative and leadership in working with us and others to craft legislation that will strengthen the federal, state, and local partnerships to restore the Lower Columbia ecosystem.”

“The lower Columbia region and the Estuary Partnership, have come a long way restoring habitat in the last decade.  Together, over 100 partners have restored over 20,000 acres of habitat, not yet a quarter of what has been lost since settlement,” says Debrah Marriott, Executive Director of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.  “More needs to be done.  This change to the Section 536 of the Water Resources and Development Act recognizes that many local entities, like the Estuary Partnership and the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, are ready to move.  We have extensive expertise and the track record, as well as organization capacity and the ability to implement projects efficiently and effectively.  That is exactly what it will take to protect the species that depend on a healthy watershed and river and we look forward to working with Congress to make that happen.”

“Sources of Salmon recovery funds have been shrinking in recent years, this update to the WRDA program will allow organizations such as ourselves to implement critical on the ground Salmon recovery efforts in the Lower Columbia region,” said Tammy Weisman, Operations Director of the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group.  “Salmon recovery is not just essential to our ecosystem- it creates jobs, increases revenue for numerous local businesses and creates and maintains community ownership of these projects.”

“The opportunities that this represents for streamlining and getting projects on the ground in Tillamook Bay are wonderful.  It represents both potential environmental and economic benefits,” says Lisa Phipps, Executive Director, Tillamook Estuaries Partnership.  

“As a property rights advocate, I’m pleased that this bill fully respects the rights of private property owners,” said Chuck Cushman, Executive Director of the American Land Rights Association.  “I’m also a landowner, and I’ve personally worked with the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group to save riverbanks on my own land that also improved salmon habitat.  These organizations do excellent work, and this is a good bill that everyone should support.”

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