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Save Our Wild Salmon

Eric Barker
May 27, 2021

Tribe.SnakeRiverThe Nez Perce and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest continued to press reluctant politicians Wednesday to join an effort to save salmon by breaching Snake River dams.

Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said his and other tribes continue to back Rep. Mike Simpson’s dam removal concept and won’t allow other politicians to drive a wedge in their unified front.

“Any efforts to divide the indigenous peoples of this region by suggesting that the Puget Sound Tribes don’t have the same interests as the Northwest inland tribes have been soundly rejected by tribal leaders,” Penney said in a news release. “The salmon are a life source that we all depend on, in more ways than one. We will continue to fight for their survival together because just as we are united with each other, we are also united with the salmon; we are all salmon people. We are here speaking for the salmon and upholding our commitment to them as they have done, and continue to try to do, for us.”

In February, Simpson unveiled his $33 billion concept to save threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead by breaching the four lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington and investing in new sources of power, transportation alternatives for farmers and support for port communities like Lewiston and the Tri-Cities. His plan, dubbed the Columbia River Initiative, is also centered on shoring up the Bonneville Power Administration, an agency that markets power produced at federal dams in the Columbia River Basin. The agency faces an uncertain financial future because of a shifting electricity market.

But Simpson’s plan has fallen flat with many of his fellow members of the Northwest congressional delegation. Republicans and strong dam supporters like Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse of Washington have attacked Simpson and his concept. Democrats like Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee, all of Washington, have brushed him off.

Last week, Inslee and Murray said Simpson’s plan shouldn’t be funded in infrastructure legislation taking shape in Congress. Instead they called for collaborative regional talks and emphasized those discussions should honor tribal treaty rights.

Cantwell also dismissed Simpson’s proposal, but she said funding for projects like replacing culverts that block access to salmon spawning streams and other salmon habitat projects could be included in the infrastructure bill. Her focus appears to be on fish in the Puget Sound area, what she calls the “salmon production powerhouse.” Culverts that pass water under the highly developed region’s many roads, highways and interstates are deemed a major threat to salmon.

When asked about Simpson’s plan at a recent virtual town hall meeting, Cantwell talked about the need to diversify power production in the Northwest so it isn’t as reliant on hydropower, an element of the Simpson plan, then pivoted and spoke about the need to replace culverts in the Puget Sound.

She suggested Simpson’s plan is not realistic.

“We need to focus on what we can get, so I’m going to try to get that energy diversification in the bill,” she said. “I’m going to try to get salmon habitat recovery in the bill. I’m going to try to get money to take care of those culverts.”

“The sacred and life-sustaining issues of water and salmon, and this unprecedented moment offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make real progress in saving this once bountiful fish for our children and grandchildren, has given us in Indian Country cause to set aside any past differences,” he said. “We call upon the many other regional interests, parties and stakeholders in this decades-long stalemate to do the same and to agree to a meaningful plan that restores the rivers of the Columbia Basin and the salmon runs to their former strength and health. For us, we believe the answers can be found in Rep. Simpson’s proposed framework.”

Penny’s news release included statements of support from Mel Sheldon, former chairman of the Tulalip Tribes in western Washington and Delano Saluskin, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council in central Washington.

Sheldon said funding for culvert replacement shouldn’t come at the expense of help for Snake River fish.

“We are all fishing people and have been for generations. Such an appropriation may be of benefit to the Puget Sound Tribes and our salmon here. But it does not help the Idaho salmon and steelhead whose continued existence remains threatened by the four Lower Snake dams,” he said. “This fateful moment requires more from everyone — bigger thinking, bold action, and a willingness to do what’s right and what’s needed — for the rivers, the fish and the tribal peoples who have always depended on both.”

Yakama chairman Saluskin said Simpson’s plan can help recover salmon and address a number of other difficult problems.

“Today — in the face of aging energy infrastructure, depressed local economies, climate change, and ever-declining fish runs — we must do something different to preserve our way of life in the Pacific Northwest. We invite and challenge our partners and our neighbors to take a hard look at how Congressman Simpson’s proposal could benefit our energy security, our economies and our critical natural resources for the benefit of all.”

Penney said Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce executive committee, introduced a resolution expressing support for Simpson’s concept at a convention of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. A vote on the resolution is expected today.


Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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