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The Roots of Impasse: How Neoliberalism has Shaped Recovery Planning for Endangered Fish in the Columbia River Basin

by Linse, Lea Michelle


Management of the Columbia River has come to an impasse: after decades of litigation and controversy, there is a growing sense among stakeholders that there may be no good solution to the conflict between endangered salmon and the region’s expansive hydroelectric generation system. Dams and reservoirs pose severe challenges to the survival and migration of salmon and have been blamed for significant population declines over the past century. Addressing this issue, however, is complicated by the fact that river management strategies to benefit the fish often require operational changes that reduce the productivity of hydroelectric power generators, and thus they are strongly opposed by hydroelectric interests and dam operators. Still, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with ensuring that other federal agencies’ actions (including actions of federal dam operators) do not jeopardize listed species, is constantly pressured by Native American tribes, environmental groups, and other stakeholders to implement just that sort of management plan. Caught between the two sides, the NMFS, instead of being decisive, has tended to avoid upsetting the status quo and has been often criticized for it. This report seeks to explain why the NMFS has been so reluctant to regulate the hydroelectric system. It shows that, despite the authority of the NMFS the Endangered Species Act, they must operate within the confines of what is politically feasible. Political feasibility is constrained in part by the legacy of a trend toward neoliberalism that gained influence in U.S. politics during the 1980s and 1990s. Specifically, neoliberal policies aimed at limiting federal involvement in economic activities and private land under the ESA have become impediments to federal action in the Columbia that would give endangered fish priority over development activities that threaten their survival. Two such policies are analyzed in this report, the “no surprises” policy, which was originally designed for private landowners but is now used between regulating and regulated agencies, and the “best available science” mandate for federal action under the ESA.


The author has given permission for this work to be deposited in the Digital Archive of Colorado College.

Colorado College Honor Code upheld.

Includes bibliographical references.

Administrative Notes

The author has given permission for this work to be deposited in the Digital Archive of Colorado College.

Colorado College Honor Code upheld.

Copyright restrictions apply.
Colorado College Tutt Library
Digital Origin
born digital
50 pages : illustrations, map(s)
Senior Thesis -- Colorado College
Thesis Advisor
McKendry, Corina Perramond, Eric
Environmental Program
Degree Name
Bachelor of Arts
Degree Type
Degree Grantor
Colorado College Tutt Library
Date Issued