When Congressman Mike Simpson first proposed breaching the four lower Snake River dams to preserve imperiled salmon about 18 months ago, all he had were incentives.
When he called for a “Northwest solution that ends the salmon wars and puts the Northwest and our energy systems on a certain, secure and viable path for decades and restores Idaho’s salmon,” Simpson could only offer ways to insulate Lewiston-Clarkston and the Inland Northwest from the economic fallout that would follow a diminution of navigation, hydropower and irrigation.
The southern Idaho Republican was handing out dollar bills by the fistful — $16 billion for lost hydropower here, $1.5 billion for high-speed loader grants there, another $200 million to compensate the ports, $150 million for riverfront restoration and $275 million to help Clearwater Paper make the transition. In all, Simpson’s Columbia Basin Initiative involved a $33.5 billion payout.
But if the region told Simpson to pound sand — which it promptly did — there wasn’t much he could do. Simpson had a lot of carrots but no sticks.
The sticks are piling up. Most prominent among them was the Biden administration weighing in Tuesday with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration planting a bull’s-eye on the dams as the single largest detriment to fish survival.
That’s a jarring change to a community grown accustomed to previous administrations — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — remaining on the sidelines.
However this shakes out, Biden’s team intends to intervene on behalf of the fish and tribal treaty rights.
“Business as usual will not restore the health and abundance of Pacific Northwest salmon,” said Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of Biden’s White House Council on Environmental Quality. “We need a durable, inclusive, and regionally-crafted long-term strategy for the management of the Columbia River Basin.”
That’s on top of the ongoing efforts of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to explore salmon restoration. Perhaps that means a congressional signal toward a breaching deal. But it certainly leans into an alliance with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown as well as the region’s Indian tribes, most prominently the Nez Perce.
“We each remain firmly committed to saving our salmon,” Murray and Inslee said last month in releasing a preliminary study. “We also know that the dams provide significant benefits to our region’s economy and communities. In the coming weeks, we will carefully review and consider public input, tribal consultation, and other engagement from stakeholders before making any recommendations.”
Meanwhile, the Biden administration and the parties suing it on behalf of salmon recovery in the federal courts have placed a pause on their litigation. None of this adds up to what would be the largest dam removal project in the United States. Only Congress can authorize that and the political leadership representing the dam community — Idaho Gov.
Brad Little, Sen. Jim Risch and Congressman Russ Fulcher as well as Washington Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse — promised to gum up the legislative gears as much as possible. What the Biden administration can achieve on its own absent congressional support remains to be seen.
But momentum is converging from several sources and it seems to be accelerating.
All of which must feel like familiar terrain to Simpson, who spent more than a decade drafting and passing a Boulder- White Clouds wilderness bill. During that time, Simpson considered himself an honest broker of information. To skeptics in Blaine and Custer counties, the congressman would argue that determining their own destiny through an Idaho bill that designated wilderness boundaries, motorized trail access and economic development was far more preferable to having a Democratic president impose a national monument declaration from afar.
The Inland Northwest should not ignore that lesson. As tasty as Simpson’s carrots may be, they have a shelf life. The offer will not remain on the table indefinitely.