By Lucinda George Simpson & Giulia Good Stefani
Nov 1, 2020
Simpson is a descendant of the Chief Joseph Wallowa band of Nimiipuu (or Nez Perce) and a youth group leader on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, ID. Good Stefani is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and lives in Mosier.
For thousands of years, Columbia River Basin salmon fed the Nimiipuu people, the Southern Resident orcas, and a complex network of humans, animals, and plants that stretched from the inland mountains to the coast. Today, the fish are declining, several populations are near extinct and those who have depended on them are feeling the effects.
Yet the federal government, which has spent billions trying to restore salmon runs, is essentially signaling surrender. Even though it recently concluded that removing four dams on the lower Snake River would have the greatest benefit for salmon survival, it is refusing to do so and offering an inadequate solution in its place.
Now, the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana are stepping into the leadership gap, recently announcing an agreement to work together to restore Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead. Will that four-state promise end 100 years of conflict between salmon and dams in the Columbia Basin? The odds are long, but it is a promising first step toward addressing one of the country’s most complex ecological, economic, and social justice challenges.
Solutions will require leadership from all the sovereign entities—the four states, tribes, and the federal government—and the willingness of all sides and factions to come together, put down past politics and have difficult conversations.
The stakes are clear. One of the most essential elements of our ecosystem is disappearing. Thirteen Columbia Basin salmon populations are listed as in danger of extinction. The salmon suffer from many threats, but the most significant is the many dams that now break up and slow down the natural flow of the Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake River. Dams block over half the spawning habitat once available in the basin, and dams change flow patterns, raise river temperatures, and increase predation in ways that harm salmon. The industrialization of the Columbia Basin’s rivers has caused the system to lose its natural balance.
We know from personal experience that our good health, relationships, and abundance all suffer when our relationship with Mother Earth is broken. As we experience the COVID- 19 crisis, the Nimiipuu are at a higher health risk and still under threat because people indigenous to this place no longer have the healthy diet of their ancestors. Many small towns along rivers (like the ones we live in) have suffered economic losses from a lack of salmon. And the cultural impact for the Nimiipuu people of declining salmon and other wildlife and fish is incalculable. We have both advocated, written about, and spoken to government officials about the need to restore salmon and protect future generations from an ecologically uncertain future.
The decline of salmon is not just hurting human health, it’s impacting wildlife, including the endangered orcas. Columbia Basin salmon provide an important source of nutrition to endangered orcas, and scientists have found that the reproductive females especially rely on salmon from the Basin to build up fat and deliver healthy babies. After tragically losing her last newborn, the now famous orca mother Tahlequah had a healthy calf this year. But almost 70 percent of orca pregnancies still end in miscarriage. Without salmon, their families and future are at risk too.
Climate change is only making things more urgent. The four lower Snake River dams frequently cause temperatures in their reservoirs that are too hot for salmon migration. Despite the federal government’s acknowledgment that removing the earthen portions of the lower Snake River dams would most help salmon, its strategy is instead to have the Army Corps of Engineers continue spilling additional water over the dams – an action widely recognized as insufficient. Lower Snake River dam removal is one of the actions we must consider. We understand that is a tough conversation because many communities depend on the electricity and agricultural services that the river, in its current state, provides. But we cannot build the future we need unless we keep all options – and all voices – at the table.
We have a choice. In our relationship to the natural world, so much is broken. In our politics, we are deeply divided. The salmon’s struggle and need to meet our climate goals is a chance to come together as a region with a new appreciation for nature and our joint responsibility to live in balance. By working together, we can support the urgent search for solutions that can rebuild salmon and ensure an abundant future for generations to come.