Bailout hide and seek

The Bush administration doesn't blink a budgetary eye at proposing a $700 billion bailout for the nation's failing financial institutions. But the prospect of $170 million in disaster relief for West Coast salmon fishermen has it playing hide and seek with the federal checkbook.

Last week the administration released $100 million in relief for fishermen and dependent businesses in Oregon, California and Washington state. But it withheld another $70 million approved by Congress to help those harmed by this year's closure of salmon fisheries.

The administration diverted the $70 million to help pay higher-than-anticipated costs of conducting the 2010 Census. The budgetary shell game is being played at the Commerce Department, which oversees both the Census Bureau and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration — the federal agency responsible for salmon recovery and planning.

NOAA officials insist the salmon money is not really being diverted, but merely delayed until the next budget year. But that promise is not exactly a check you can deposit in the bank, especially when it comes from an administration that will soon be heading for the exits.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., accuses the administration of "trying to steal money from salmon fishermen" to give it to the Census. DeFazio, along with 11 other members of Congress, sent a letter to President Bush last week urging distribution of the full $170 million in disaster relief that Congress approved earlier this year.

The letter properly questions whether the White House can legally withhold or delay relief funding that Congress already has appropriated, especially when Oregon, Washington and California have fully complied with federal requirements for emergency assistance.

If the administration's indifference feels familiar, it's because it has repeatedly exhibited the same attitude toward West Coast fishermen and communities that rely on their business as they have been battered by fishery failures in recent years.

It is also the same indifference that the administration has exhibited toward crafting a viable long-term salmon recovery plan for the Northwest's struggling rivers. This year's closure was prompted by the collapse of the chinook run on California's Sacramento River, but the Sacramento is just one of three major coastal systems that are in trouble. Dismal salmon returns in the Klamath River forced fishing restrictions in 2005 and 2006, and last year the Columbia River Basin saw less than 2 percent of its historic salmon run return.

Without major changes in federal salmon policy to protect and restore these once vibrant river systems, the government will find itself in the unhappy position of bailing out fishermen for years to come — although it's not clear how many more years the West Coast's commercial salmon fishing industry can hang on if conditions continue to deteriorate. Fishermen need more than relief checks; they need healthy rivers.

That will require more than $100 million or even $170 million. It will take a multistate effort to restore tributaries and wetlands, to provide the cool water that salmon need to survive and thrive, to remove unnecessary dams, to reduce the amount of water diverted for agricultural use and to reduce pollution.

The next Congress should conduct hearings on the West Coast salmon crisis and begin working with a new administration on a comprehensive strategy to bring the fish back to West Coast rivers and to make certain there are still some fishermen left to catch them.

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