Oct. 3, 2022
By Debra Lekanoff
Special to The Seattle Times
If we want to solve the challenges that are sitting right before us, we sometimes need to act with a vision that looks much farther down the road. We need to make generational commitments.
Washington state continues to face one of the most significant crises of our lifetimes in the degradation of Pacific Northwest salmon. The salmon, whose numbers have been plummeting for decades, are now in some places facing extinction. Once the salmon are gone, the very foundation of Pacific Northwest Native American culture, laws and values will be irreparably damaged.
I stand before you as the only Native American in the Washington state Legislature. I’m asking your spirits and hearts to make the right choices to avoid salmon extinction.
Together, we can urge collaboration from the state, local governments, tribes, Congress and the Biden administration to act. Together, we can ensure a prosperous future based on our Washington state values of protecting the environment and economies.
Living our traditional ways of life is a Native right that depends on whether we make this generational commitment. It will take a shift in perspective that includes applying a salmon revitalization lens to our lawmaking and policy decisions.
The Pacific Northwest tribes once had salmon in our smoke houses and freezers all year around. When the tide was out, our table was set with salmon, seaweed and shellfish, and the forests were full of a balance of elk, deer, bears, cougars and owls.
That life we knew is no longer what it was due to real life impacts of policy decisions. But our sacred responsibility is grounded in our salmon and their role in our culture, values and laws. Salmon are the very foundation of sustainability that grounds our Pacific Northwest way of life, our economies and our future for seven generations and beyond.
That’s why I’m working in the Legislature to make salmon restoration a policy and budget priority for the 2023 session — for the generations to come.
That’s what U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee had in mind when they recently released recommendations for a comprehensive salmon solution in the Columbia River Basin. It’s focused on generational planning to ensure salmon do not go extinct on their watch.
Part of that work is underway. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell already worked hard to secure $2.8 billion for habitat restoration and fish passage improvements. Those efforts are critical. There are also $1 billion worth of backlogged recovery efforts that must be moved to the front burner.
Gov. Inslee and Sen. Murray have also created a path forward for breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association recently released a report noting what Native people have said for years: We need to breach the four dams on the Lower Snake River to prevent salmon extinction. Gov. Inslee and Sen. Murray are now focusing on the services that must be replaced before the dams are breached.
I believe we can do that before the decade is out, and possibly sooner.
We need to replace the energy the dams provide with non-extinction sources like wind and solar. We need to replace the grain transportation that those dams make possible through barging with rail service. We need to ensure that Washington’s world-class farmers have the water they need through new irrigation sources.
This is all doable. And it can be funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as well as the Inflation Reduction Act.
Solving the immediate crisis of salmon decline and extinction calls us to apply a salmon perspective to all we do. As we think about, and make policy decisions for energy — we think about salmon. As we think about agriculture — we think about salmon. As we think about communities from the Idaho border to the Pacific — we think about salmon. As we work with tribes — we think about salmon.
Salmon have always been the foundation of Pacific Northwest Native ways of life. And they always will be. Unless we, as a region, decide it’s OK to fail them.
Solving our immediate salmon challenges requires generational commitments. We have leadership in the state, in Congress and in the executive branch who are eager to carry it out.
If we don’t, we lose the fish that have sustained this region for millennia. As a state legislator, as a Native woman and as a mom, I cannot and will not let that happen. And I’m calling on you to join me.
Debra Lekanoff is a Tlingit tribal member who represents the 40th Legislative District in the state House of Representatives. The district includes San Juan County as well as parts of Whatcom and Skagit Counties.