SEATTLE - The federal agency in charge of making plans for salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest is reaching out to a couple hundred people, businesses and associations, in what could signal a more collaborative approach to saving the endangered fish.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has named two neutral, university-based groups to interview and assess all sides' views in the salmon debate. The move is widely seen as a positive alternative to many years of court showdowns about saving salmon versus generating hydroelectric power.
Whitman County wheat farmer Bryan Jones says fishermen and power companies aren't the only ones interested in this process.
"I feel as if I'm one of those stakeholders, being a farmer who ships grain down the river. If a group of stakeholders is going to sit down, agriculture needs to be included in that. I know it's important that farmers of Whitman County get a voice."
Conservation groups have long said they believe roundtable discussions would make headway for salmon recovery, and have released statements saying they hope this process is a start. The report, called a "Situation Assessment," should be ready in the summer.
The new approach doesn't change the fact that a federal judge in Portland, Ore., threw out the feds' most recent salmon-recovery plan, known as a Biological Opinion. It was the third in a row considered inadequate, and the deadline for a new plan is in 2014.
Marc Kraznowsky, communications director for the Northwest Energy Coalition, says he hopes the two efforts go hand in hand.
"It involves many of the same players, so hopefully there'll be some crossover. It's important to make that tie - that regardless of how this collaboration goes forward, the salmon have to survive that process."
Preseason estimates released last week forecast that the adult upriver spring chinook runs could be the smallest in five years.