Conservation Groups Intervene in Lawsuit to Protect Oregon Salmon, Orcas, Rivers

PORTLAND, OREGON — Bird Alliance of Oregon, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife submitted a motion to intervene yesterday in a lawsuit filed by industry groups seeking to undermine protections for Oregon’s endangered salmon and the rivers they depend on for survival. This would harm endangered Southern Resident orcas, which live along the Pacific Coast and are starving for lack of their preferred prey, spring chinook salmon.

If successful, the industry lawsuit — brought by a coalition using the deceptive name “Oregonians for Floodplain Protection” — would reverse years of effort in Oregon to reform the taxpayer-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The flood insurance program places people, communities and wildlife at unnecessary risk by encouraging development in flood-prone areas by providing taxpayer subsidies for insurance coverage that private companies generally see as too risky.

Photo by Robin Dawes

Floodplains provide important fish and wildlife habitat, increase flood storage capacity and protect water quality. In an age of climate change, floodplains provide critical landscape resiliency in the face of larger and more extreme flooding events.

“The tragic flooding that occurred around the country in 2017 should have been a wake-up call to all Americans that our current floodplain development policies are dangerous and unsustainable,” said Bob Sallinger, director of conservation at the Bird Alliance of Oregon. “However, instead of allowing Oregon to move forward with much-needed floodplain reforms, industries that benefit most from irresponsible, taxpayer-subsidized floodplain development are seeking to undermine reform efforts.”

FEMA’s program subsidizes flood insurance in flood-prone areas. Increased losses in floodplains in recent years have put the national flood insurance program more than $24 billion in debt. That number still needs to be updated to account for flooding in Houston, Puerto Rico and elsewhere in 2017. Without federal tax dollars covering the inevitable damage, most flood-zone construction would not occur.

In 2016 the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded in a “biological opinion” that the current structure of the flood insurance program in Oregon jeopardizes the continued existence of salmon, steelhead and Southern Resident orcas and adversely modifies the designated critical habitat of anadromous fish species in Oregon.

The biological opinion included a list of reforms FEMA should implement to protect those endangered species. These reforms not only benefit imperiled species, but will also reduce flood risks to people and property. The Oregon reforms set a national precedent for reforming floodplain management to better protect both people and imperiled species.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service has outlined sensible improvements to FEMA’s flood insurance program to help recover listed salmon, steelhead and orcas,” said Jason Rylander, senior staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “The changes will protect not only listed salmon and steelhead habitat, but also people, property and American taxpayers. This industry-led lawsuit must not prevent FEMA from making the reforms necessary for sensible development within Oregon’s floodplains.”

However, the industry lawsuit argues that FEMA has no obligation to comply with the Endangered Species Act when it issues taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance to high-risk developments. In fact, FEMA has always maintained minimum eligibility requirements for communities to obtain flood insurance. Unfortunately, as currently implemented by FEMA, these requirements often facilitate dangerous and environmentally destructive development.

“This lawsuit is about greed, period,” said Ryan Shannon, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The suit’s backers want to keep building in highly hazardous flood-prone areas and they want taxpayers and endangered species to keep footing the bill.”

“We have waited long enough for FEMA to make these necessary, common-sense changes to its program,” said Daniel Rohlf, counsel at Earthrise Law Center. “Now it is time to move forward and ensure that FEMA works with Oregon’s municipalities to manage floodplain development to protect salmon and strengthen our communities.”


Under the program, FEMA identified 251 communities in Oregon that are flood-prone. These communities have experienced damaging floods in 41 of the past 53 years and since 1995, there have been 12 flood-related presidential disaster declarations in Oregon. Since 1978, Oregon has had 5,299 flood claims under the program totaling more than $91 million — costs that were directly borne by taxpayers. Oregon currently has more than 31,600 flood insurance policies in place totaling more than $7.5 billion dollars.


Founded in 1902, Bird Alliance of Oregon is one of the oldest conservation organizations in the nation. It promotes the understanding, enjoyment and protection of native birds, other wildlife and their habitats through its conservation and environmental education programs, its 150-acre Nature Sanctuary and Nature Store in northwest Portland, and its Wildlife Care Center.

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