Unnecessary Salmon Protection Regulations Destroy Widow’s Resort, by John Carlisle

For nearly ten years, Lani Odenthal and her husband Bob worked hard to develop their 80-acre golf course in Washington’s Okanogan County into a beautiful, prosperous resort. After Bob passed away, Lani, now 75, had no desire to run Sunny Meadows and decided to sell it for $1.3 million and live the rest of her life in quiet retirement.

But thanks to the federal government’s ill-considered imposition of Endangered Species Act regulations protecting salmon, Lani is virtually penniless – her once-lushly green resort now marred by dying brown grass, receding ponds and weedy flower beds.

Lani’s sad story is one of 100 stories profiled in the National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims, just released by The National Center for Public Policy Research. These stories describe the tragic consequences that result when regulations implementing ostensibly laudable objectives, such as protecting the environment, are wrongly enforced at the expense of property owners.

In Lani’s case, government rashly adopted endangered species regulations that not only ignored economic considerations but were attempting to resolve a problem – a low salmon population – that wasn’t even due to man-made causes.

Lani’s saga began in 1998 when she put Sunny Meadows up for sale following her husband’s death. A woman living in the area offered her $1.3 million, which Lani eagerly accepted. But then in the spring of 1999, before the deal went through, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ordered the local irrigation company to stop providing water to Sunny Meadows and other clients in its service area. The prospective buyer withdrew her offer, saying that it was too risky to invest when access to water is in doubt.

The denial of water to Lani’s resort was one of the first consequences of the NMFS’s decision to place several subspecies of West Coast salmon on the endangered species list in March 1999. Federal regulators and environmental groups contend that a 25-year-long decline in the West Coast salmon population is the result of human activities, such as overharvesting, dam operations and irrigation for farming and other commercial activities, that degrade the stream conditions vital to salmon survival. Following the 1999 listings, the NMFS issued onerous regulations sharply restricting the amount of water that could be released for irrigation in the Pacific Northwest. The NMFS argues that irrigation water diverted from salmon-bearing rivers and streams may harm salmon survivability by lowering the water levels and make it more difficult for the fish to swim.

This rationale led Lani Odenthal to the poorhouse.

But it seems that Lani and her neighbors in the Pacific Northwest are being punished for something they didn’t cause. Scientific evidence indicates that a naturally-occurring increase in the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the West Coast has caused the sharp drop in salmon by destroying most of the salmon’s food supply and increasing the number of fish that prey on salmon. Man, it turns out, is not even the major factor influencing fluctuations in the salmon population. Furthermore, the same oceanic phenomenon, known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, that has been so detrimental to salmon survival operates on a 20 to 30-year cycle and appears to be entering a cool phase that will stimulate a major rebound in the salmon population. Already, the salmon seem to be recovering, as indicated by an increase in coho salmon populations in northern California and southern Oregon that began in the mid-1990s.

But where does this leave Lani Odenthal? The NMFS insists upon enforcing the economically-damaging water regulations. Besides being unable to sell Sunny Meadows, Lani cannot earn an income from the once-booming resort. The lush green land that once brought in thousands of golfers, fishermen and other visitors looks more like a parched desert. “It’s very depressing for me to see it like this,” says Lani. “All our lawns were just beautiful. We had people stopping all the time to take pictures of this place.”

Making ends meet has been tough. Lani had to sell her motor home and other items to pay debts. But she is still in tight financial straits, and worries about making next month’s rent on her apartment.

Lani’s story serves as a stark reminder to government regulators and environmentalists that there are serious consequences to the policies they advocate. Had the federal government bothered to pay attention to the scientific research linking the salmon decline to natural oceanic conditions, the NMFS need not have imposed such draconian regulations. And the widow Lani Odenthal, instead of being destitute, would be doing what she wanted all along – just enjoying a quiet retirement.


John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. 

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.