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Saving the Salmon, and More

The Seattle area has just been handed an unparalleled challenge-cum-opportunity. Can this Northwest magnet, which anticipates 1 million more residents in the next quarter-century, reconcile fragile wildlife habitat and rapid urban development?

The challenge came March 16, when the federal government listed nine salmon species as endangered. The city, the counties, and the state have to respond with credible plans for saving the fish - or Uncle Sam will step in eventually and do the job himself.

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The opportunity arises from the salmon's cherished place in the traditions, as well as the cuisine, of the area. People want to preserve this symbol of the region's natural splendor. Politicians are generally confident the job can be done.

But it won't be easy. Residential and commercial developments have for years been infringing on the rivers, streams, and wetlands that the sea-going game fish depend on for spawning. Other problems include overfishing and extensive damming of the region's rivers. The salmon's numbers have declined sharply, to a fraction of historic highs in the millions.

This problem was recognized long before the federal listing. Local governments, such as King County, have land-use plans designed to upgrade salmon habitat. The county, which embraces Seattle, has spent more than $300 million over the past two decades to buy open space, improve streams, and restore salmon habitat. Public opinion appears to firmly back such steps, and more if needed.

But many worry this could change as significant sacrifices are required - bans on fertilizers that run off into streams and strict limits on new developments, for instance. And, of course, taxes will go up to pay for the various salmon-protection measures.

Much will depend on how well the region's various jurisdictions and interests work together to protect the salmon and sustain public support. If they can join forces and satisfy federal authorities that the salmon are indeed headed for recovery, they'll deserve not only their neighbors' thanks, but the nation's. The country needs examples of effective local responses to environmental problems.

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