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Save Our Wild Salmon

Salmon migrating

Northwest Tribal leaders, three senior members of Congress, and two governors have begun a new path to save our endangered fish, writes guest columnist Pat Ford.

July 27, 2023

In 2021, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson proposed that the earthen sections of four dams be removed to restore free salmon migration through 140 miles of the lower Snake River. Since then, he has had underway a non-linear work in progress: tacking through political waters toward the day the real U.S. Congress, not a wishful one, authorizes and appropriates funds for removing the four dams. An early step was to find partners. He now has some.

Through salmon-colored eyes, I will gauge the political moment for Snake River salmon and steelhead. Mr. Simpson put in his oar in 2021. Two years later, as he intended, other elected leaders have added theirs’. What have they changed?

It is no detour from politics to start with salmon power. The fish themselves kindled Mr. Simpson’s passion to keep them alive in Idaho. In a few late summers, he observed a few adult salmon – the survivors, 800 miles and near 7,000 feet up from the ocean, in central Idaho creeks, spawning and dying into new life. When he speaks, it is plain the fish hooked him. Generations of people have been hooked by salmon. What happened in Mr. Simpson as he watched salmon can happen within others, in Congress and the Biden administration, in summers on both sides of the next election.

For three decades, restoring a flowing lower Snake River by removing four dams has been felt by most of its combatants — and perceived by nearly all elected leaders — as a binary choice. Salmon, or dams; Snake River salmon, or these four dams; dams, or no dam services; and so on. There is truth in some of these formulations. But I think the political moment has moved past either/or. Senior Northwest leaders are taking a new path.

These recent actions are material:

– Congressman Simpson’s legislative concept, 2021, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s report and recommendations, 2022.

– The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and individual tribes, in resolutions and actions, 2021-23.

– U.S. Sens. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Steve Daines, R-Montana, and Washington Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse’s inaccurately titled “Northwest Energy Security Act,” 2023.

To focus on politics, I cannot describe here their full substance. Please consult the originals through the provided hyperlinks.

Simpson’s concept and the Murray/Inslee recommendations came 18 months apart, and they differ on much. But their political signals, from leaders of both parties, broadly align. Both conclude, on grounds of law and politics, that restoring the lower Snake requires action by Congress. Both say current services of the lower Snake dams must be replaced, or bettered, for authorization to remove the dams to be possible in Congress. And both signal the Northwest’s political balance is not quite ready, in 2023, to remove four dams from the Columbia/Snake hydro system.

But, these accomplished politicians say, nor will that political balance allow Snake River salmon and steelhead extinction. They see the extinction risk clearly – the science is all too clear. They therefore agree the Northwest should promptly prepare to do without these four dams.

This is a big political shift. Putting action to words, Gov. Inslee and the Washington Legislature have now begun their state’s assessment of impacts and replacement paths if the four dams must go.

The three leaders also agree that seizing wider opportunities, for salmon, water and resilience, in the Columbia Basin and along the coast, can accompany a resolution on the lower Snake. And, that greater tribal influence in salmon and river management should exist than now does. The state of Oregon, led by Gov. Tina Kotek, is active in this same evolving framework, with, I suspect, a strong lean toward faster action for salmon.

Murray and Inslee have not yet said yes to restoring the lower Snake. Simpson, Kotek and Northwest tribes have said yes. But all of them start at the same place: create regional readiness to remove the dams. This may be a longer road than we who watch the extinction clock will wish. On the flip side, it is a road, backed by accomplished elected leaders.

This framework has no calendar agreed among its framers. It has a direction: get ready to do without four dams.

The bridge from Simpson to Murray and Inslee, the political join if you will, came three months after Simpson spoke and five months before Murray and Inslee began their study process. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians adopted a resolution commending Simpson – and asking fellow Northwest leaders to join him, and join them, in a large work of recovery and repair. Fifty-seven tribes endorsed removing the lower Snake dams, with users kept whole, and filled some of Simpson’s blank space with further fish, resource and governance priorities for tribes, in both Columbia and coastal watersheds.

For the tribes’ direct voice, and their recommended actions, read the most recent Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians resolution, adopted four months after Murray/Inslee recommendations.

Elected leaders of 57 sovereign tribes with homelands in seven states, and a conservative Republican Congressman from southern Idaho, formed a political partnership. The tribes’ active work in that partnership was one reason Murray and Inslee took their own deep dive, with their own tribal consultation. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians built a bridge between a senior Idaho Republican and two senior Washington Democrats. That tribal bridge is the decisive political lever now operating on Northwest governors, members of Congress and the Biden administration to support restoring a flowing lower Snake River. And, there is more to this bridge than the lower Snake.

Over three years, independently but with mutual influence, Northwest tribal leaders, three senior members of Congress, and two governors have proposed, and begun, a new path. Its heart, but not whole, must soon be legislation that restores Snake River salmon by opening four dams, makes those reliant on the dams whole or better, accelerates salmon return to the upper Columbia River, seizes further fish, water and resilience opportunities for the Northwest, and separately funds much of the above. I won’t guess at a plausible timing for enactment; the salmon say, and will keep saying, NOW.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review recently published a guest opinion from the four chairs of the Columbia River Treaty Tribes – Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama. They tell why their tribes are taking this path, and for what purposes. They also give the enterprise a name, echoing Simpson’s but with the third word added: Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative.

The Risch/Daines/McMorris Rodgers/Newhouse “old dams forever” bill – a more accurate name than its sponsors provide – would legislatively lock into existence the entire 31-dam Federal Columbia River Power System, and also that system’s operations as specified in the Trump administration’s awful salmon plan of 2018. Two certain results if such a bill ever becomes law are Northwest energy insecurity and extinction in the wild of Snake River salmon and steelhead.

This bill speaks for a minority of Northwest members of Congress who are determined to just say no to any change on the lower Snake. Continuing momentum on the path sketched here could fray their unity, though probably not before 2025. In any future, this minority is a large obstacle to legislation that de-authorizes, and funds removal of, the lower Snake dams.

But, given the shift outlined above, the political news is what their bill does not contain. Simpson, Murray, Inslee, Kotek and the tribes are taking great care for the human and community consequences, especially where negative, of a decision to remove these four dams. In bright contrast, this bill takes no heed, completely ignores, the human, community, economic, legal and treaty consequences of their “all federal dams forever, and forever operated badly for salmon” position.

The words “tribes,” “treaties” and “justice” are not in the bill. Nor “salmon economies and cultures.” Nor orcas, science, and hot water. The plain facts and mounting region-wide harm as extinction of Snake River salmon draws close are just ignored. This failure to address the consequences of retaining the four dams is pervasive among their defenders.

In May, the Washington Legislature approved Gov. Inslee’s budget requests to begin state planning for the consequences of a freed lower Snake. A responsible momentum is building. In this context, the silence of the four dams’ defenders on the consequences of their position for tribes, and for our nation’s treaty obligations, is a punishing political weakness. Piling on top is their silence for fishing economies and towns, orcas and orca people, and river health and resilience.

Adherents of these dams do not meet the high bar, the responsibility for consequences, which Simpson, Murray, Inslee, Kotek and the tribes have established for restoring the river. May that contrast be drawn plainly and often, in public and in contact with other elected leaders.

A second political contrast can be drawn, too, between the opportunities that choosing to free the lower Snake offers our region, and those on offer if the four dams are kept. Read the Murray-Inslee recommendations, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians resolutions, and Simpson’s concept for how to think about opportunities, and examples. Then read the old-dams-forever bill. I am confident which way the opportunity needle points. But few Northwest people know that restoring the lower Snake River for salmon can help catalyze more benefits for our region.

I write a few weeks before the Biden administration is expected to announce its Columbia-Snake salmon actions. Preparing to do without the lower Snake dams is, I hope, a given on its list.

These decisions will test my thesis: that recent actions by leaders are creating a new path, where sequenced support for restoring the lower Snake River can make economic, justice, river health, salmon and political sense. Enough sense, that is, so the solid majority of Northwest members of Congress who will eventually have to vote yes, do so. There is momentum, not inevitability, in that direction. The administration can greatly accelerate it.

Bad salmon news again predominates in 2023. Low salmon and steelhead numbers, especially steelhead; more closed fisheries; sustained river temperatures over 70 degrees. The early evidence suggests 2024 will be worse. In the race between extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead, and the action by Congress that the fish need, extinction is still winning.

But politics, and good politicians, must also be taken on their own terms. Since Mike Simpson proposed in 2021 to free the lower Snake, the political shift is large, and positive. Congressman Simpson, elected leaders of 57 Indian tribes, Sen. Murray, Gov. Inslee, and Gov. Kotek all deserve Northwest-wide thanks. Now there is so much more to do.

Pat Ford grew up in Idaho Falls. He worked for the Idaho Conservation League for seven years, and he worked for the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition for 22 years. He retired in 2014 and lives in Boise with his wife, Julia Page.

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