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Save Our Wild Salmon

May 23, 2021

LMTYou wouldn’t know it from the way Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., pumped the brakes on Congressman Mike Simpson’s concept to breach four dams on the lower Snake River to spare imperiled salmon from extinction.

But time is not on their side.

Inslee, who burnished his environmental credentials during a brief presidential campaign last year, and Murray, the state’s senior senator, distanced themselves from Simpson’s call to spend more than $33 billion from an infrastructure package to mitigate the economic losses breaching might inflict on Northwest navigation, agriculture and hydropower generation.

Instead, the two Democrats want to rely on the still-emerging Columbia Basin Collaborative — involving Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Native American tribes and stakeholders.

If that doesn’t bring the process to a crawl, how about their desire for a process that is science-based, consensus-based and includes “all voices”?

“Importantly, it is critical that this process takes all options into consideration, including the potential breaching of the lower four Snake River dams,” they said. “Any solutions must honor tribal treaty rights; ensure ongoing access for our region’s fishermen and sportsmen, guarantee Washington farmers remain competitive and are able to get Washington state farm products to market; and deliver reliable, affordable and clean energy for families and businesses across the region.”

Say what you will about Simpson’s strategy — or lack thereof — in stitching together a regional coalition behind his endeavor. But he’s more right than not about the windows of opportunities — biology for one, politics for another.

On the fish front, that window is closing.

As the Lewiston Tribune’s Eric Barker has reported:

  • Climate change poses an existential threat to wild spring and summer chinook salmon by the second half of this century, according to a National Marine Fisheries Service study led by research ecologist Lisa Crozier of Seattle.
  • Nez Perce tribal studies show 42 percent of Snake River salmon and 19 percent of steelhead are on the cusp of extinction .
  • If current trends continue into 2025, 77 percent of Snake River spring chinook and 44 percent of steelhead would reach the quasi-extinction threshold.
  • During the past decade, spring chinook and steelhead populations declined, on average, 19 percent and 18 percent each year respectively.

And then there’s politics.

Part and parcel of Simpson’s strategy was how Democratic control of Congress elevated Northwest House and Senate members to positions pivotal to the success of his project:

  • Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman will be right in the middle of drafting the infrastructure bill.
  • Sen. Marie Cantwell, D-Wash. The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chairwoman has jurisdiction over inland waterways and marine fisheries.
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. He serves as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he’ll have leverage to negotiate elements of the infrastructure package.

Democrats control the Senate by a 51-50 margin. In the House, the difference comes down to 219 Democrats, 211 Republicans and five vacancies.

Timing favors Republicans taking the majority next year. Rarely since the Great Depression has the party in power not lost seats in Congress during the mid-term election.

Having gained ground in the 2020 elections, the GOP already has momentum.

With Republicans in charge of drawing congressional district boundaries in several states, many moderate Democrats are already racing to the exits.

And if the GOP takes charge in January 2023, the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee could pass from DeFazio to ranking Republican Sam Graves of Missouri.

Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska could replace Merkley at Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., could take over from Cantwell as chairman of Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, could replace Wyden at Finance. And Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who opposes Simpson’s idea, would take the helm at the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Inslee and Murray have been around long enough to be keenly aware of all of that.

They know what they’re doing. The question is why? — M.T.

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