By Lynda Mapes
Nov. 29, 2020
BUFFALO EDDY, Snake River, Idaho — Sunlit mist drifted across basalt cliffs and hillsides aglow in a soft pelage of summer grass, turned gold now with autumn. The river churned and swirled, and its voice was loud with the first rains of the season.
A bighorn sheep picked its way over the hills, and petroglyphs on the basalt along the riverbanks came into view — including images of bighorn sheep, pecked into the rocks thousands of years ago, by ancestors of the Nez Perce, native people of these lands and waters.
As the tour boat turned and headed downstream, the bucking current squeezed by Hells Canyon suddenly lost its strength. The sparkling waves dulled in water gone still. The boat had returned to the uppermost reaches of the reservoir at Lewiston, Idaho, impounded by the barrier of Lower Granite Dam in Washington, 39 miles away.
The Nez Perce are at the center of a decades-long battle to remove this dam, and three others on the Lower Snake River. In many tribal members’ lifetimes, dams have transformed the Columbia and Snake from wild rivers to a hydropower behemoth and shipping channel — despite fishing rights reserved by their ancestors guaranteed in the treaty of 1855.
The tribe does not agree with a recently completed assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies that essentially cemented the status quo on the dams. “The four concrete barriers on the lower Snake River have had — and continue to have — a devastating impact on the fish and on tribal people,” Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce tribal executive committee, stated in a recent letter to agency officials.