NMFS official faces Mid-Columbia business leaders


This story was published 3/9/2002

By Mike Lee
Tri City Herald staff writer

For the first time in years Mid-Columbia business leaders on Friday welcomed the regional administrator of the much-feared National Marine Fisheries Service with more or less open arms.

In return, they heard all the right words from Bob Lohn -- making his first public appearance in the region since he was appointed to lead Northwest salmon recovery efforts for NMFS in October.

He said he's planning to meet with state Ecology Department chief Tom Fitzsimmons and discuss possible changes to the federal no-net-loss water policy that has stifled new development along the Columbia River.

He said he is revamping a hatchery policy that many have found confusing and misdirected.

He said he has agreed with the Corps of Engineers to speed up processing of permits for work in wetlands and rivers.

"It's a different day," said Jim Toomey, director of the Port of Pasco. "We can work with him."

Lohn's speech at the Shilo Inn in Richland essentially was a way for 150 of the region's economic leaders to size up the man who sets the tone for federal fish recovery on the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers.

What they saw was a technically astute lawyer attempting to reshape an agency's attitude, set a new vision that relies on local efforts and improve returns for the hundreds of millions of dollars the region pours into salmon recovery each year.

"He brings an attitude that we have to find a way to improve the system together," said John Givens, director of the Port of Kennewick.

Bob Alberts, Pasco public works director, typified the open but cautious reception to Lohn's message of ground-level solutions and greater agency accountability.

"We see the light at the end of the tunnel," Alberts said. "But it might not be a light. It might be a firefly that will fly away."

Holding hands with NMFS is a lot easier to talk about now that the imminent threat of breaching the lower Snake River dams has been moved off the table. Most of Eastern Washington dug in its heels at that suggestion and developed a deep-seated animosity against federal agents during the 1990s.

Lohn was heartened by the size of the Tri-City crowd and the interest that remains in salmon issues even though dam breaching no longer is an immediate option.

"For different reasons, large numbers of people are willing to deal with the problem," he said. "I would really like to capture that initiative."

Despite his casual and upbeat approach, Lohn told the Tri-City Herald editorial board that the clear mandate from above him in the Bush administration is to make sure the 2000 Biological Opinion is followed fully. And he said the agency wasn't afraid to use its enforcement authority.

"The only way out of this is to succeed in the recovery of fish," he said. "The problem won't magically go away."

Also, Lohn said, the region already has fallen behind in some of the areas where it will be graded during 2003 and 2005 reviews of salmon recovery success -- and poor results could revive dam breaching efforts.

But Lohn's focus is on fixing things. He said he probably got his current job because he thinks declining salmon runs can be turned around, and he was anxious to try to do so without breaching the dams.

"There was a very clear understanding (from the White House) that that was not open for discussion," Lohn said. "And it is position that I strongly support."

His first months at NMFS have been marked by broad attempts to reform thinking within the agency, which has been viewed as heavily authoritarian and politically charged. "I am trying to have the agency as a whole adopt an attitude that we are interested in problem solving, not just confrontation," he said.

"Within the agency, there is a lot of ... maturing going on," he said. "People are realizing that the last years, while dramatic," have not produced the kind of results that he expects.

When Lohn arrived at NMFS he said it lacked a "strong internal structure" partly as the result of its rapid growth in the Northwest during the last three years.

He compared the 215-employee division with a fast-food chain that hadn't standardized or streamlined its process for making a consistent and high-quality product.

"We have a lot of strange hamburgers being made," he said. "My largest concern is that we will spend (our money) without sufficient purpose or direction and then not address what we need to do."


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