For the Pacific Northwest, salmon are the canary in the coal mine; the barometer of environmental health and politics. Over the past decade, the seven endangered species of salmon have gained a near-mythical symbolism as fights over dams have focused on dwindling fish populations. Even arguments over clear-cutting forests have pointed out that removing trees from an entire hillside can lead to mudslides that clog and pollute rivers.

In the past few years, salmon have held their own. But last week, the battle took a nasty turn. From the Columbia River in the north of Oregon to the streams bleeding through the Siskiyou forests in the far Southwest corner of the state, arguments for protecting salmon were rudely turned back by different federal agencies, now under the sway of the Bush Administration.

On Monday, against protests from the Sierra Club, officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service okayed a plan to dredge and deepen a 106-mile stretch of the Columbia River from Astoria to Portland. The construction and dredging will permit greater ship traffic through the area, but environmentalists say it will greatly disrupt 13 stocks of endangered or threatened species.

Almost simultaneously (but in an unrelated action), the Bush Administration opened up an estimated 800,000 acres in Southern Oregon to mining. Environmentalists worry that mining will disrupt now untouched habitats and pollute critical streams and rivers.

As one of his final acts, President Clinton declared nearly 1 million acres blanketing southern Oregon off-limits to mining. But the Interior Department has ignored nearly two years of public input and an environmental impact statement that directed the federal government not to revoke the environmental protections. Rolf Skar, with Siskiyou Regional Education Project, points out that the area has few large-scale commercial possibilities and only invites recreational and small-scale miners; as such, this will not bring any jobs to the area.

"Since there is not an economic argument, this can only be an ideological and political move," explains Skar. He goes on to lambast Sen. Gordon Smith for doing nothing to halt the decision to open up the area to mining. In fact, Skar suspects that Sen. Smith privately pushed for the rollback of environmental protections.

In a tangentially related event, on Tuesday, June 4, Christopher Swain will begin a six-month swim through the chilly waters of the Columbia. The purpose of the swim is to draw attention to the cleanliness and health of Oregon rivers. For more information, check out