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Restoring the Lower Snake River

From the desk of Joseph Bogaard, Dec. 28, 2013

salmon1.massI was sharing lunch with writer/photographer Amy Gulick last week, and together we were marveling at salmon and steelhead as “connectors.” Unlike almost any other creature, salmon stitch together ocean with river, orca with forest, conservative with liberal, art with science, tribal peoples with non-tribal peoples. The connections vary: awe, food, recreation, business, tradition, spirituality, or more likely some combination thereof. Even in their diminished condition today, salmon still weave together people and place wherever they are.

In his 1990 book The Good Rain, Timothy Egan defines the Northwest as “anywhere a salmon can get to.” By this measure, the region’s boundaries have been steadily shrinking in recent decades. The causes of salmon’s decline are many, but dam construction in particular has severed countless rivers and watersheds  - making once-rich, expansive, interconnected salmon territories inaccessible or inhospitable.

kingoffishThis narrative of loss is well-known. David Montgomery, in his book The King of Fish (2003), argues forcefully that salmon’s decimation by humans originates not with our ignorance of their needs, but rather our unwillingness to meet those needs. A pattern of extinction that began in Europe several hundred years ago, its emigrants brought to North America. Last century’s dam builders on the Columbia and Snake rivers held no illusions about the consequences of those dams on fisheries. Today still, buckets of money are steered toward projects more often designed to meet the perceived needs of politics than the actual needs of salmon.

Fortunately, like a healthy, free-flowing river, this well-established narrative is starting to alter its course. The diminishing Northwest – anywhere a salmon can get to – might be in the early stages of a new expansion, as salmon, in a number of small but significant instances, are returning to ancestral grounds and gravels. I offer two hopeful signs:

gussman2-500x375A new era of dam removal and river restoration has arrived.* Due to changing values and economics, along with growing public pressure, obsolete and outdated dams are being blasted, hammered and bull-dozed into the history books. And each time, the Northwest regains a little ground. Not only is river restoration alive and well in this corner of the world, salmon and steelhead are proving themselves impatient, persistent, and resilient. Fish are swimming back to the Rogue in southern Oregon, the Elwha on the Olympic Peninsula, and the White Salmon in southwest Washington. They’re surprising biologists and quickly re-establishing themselves in places they haven’t seen in a century.

Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty. Acting through something called the U.S. Entity, the Northwest region just delivered to the U.S. State Department its priorities for renewing this 50-year-old Treaty with Canada. While far from perfect, the regional recommendation includes adding “ecosystem health” as a third purpose to the Treaty, joining the two original purposes of power production and flood control. The recommendation also includes language supporting the restoration of salmon passage at impassable dams like Grand Coulee. While much work remains if we are to secure a truly modernized Treaty - negotiations will likely take us into 2015 - these initial developments reflect big changes in culture and values and reveal another tremendous opportunity to restore balance in our watersheds and for the Northwest to regain additional ground it lost in the last century.

In many respects, this cultural shift has only just begun. We – salmon, river, and fishing advocates in the Northwest and across the country – have started something important, and it's up to us to continue and expand it. There is much work ahead.

While salmon connect people and place, it is often our failure to honor the ecological connections they need that drive their decline. The federal agencies responsible for protecting and restoring endangered salmon in the Columbia Basin exemplify the problems that Dr. Montgomery identifies in King of Fish. NOAA, Bonneville Power Administration and other agencies more often adhere to political rather than biological science. Instead of thinking like a salmon - gravel to gravel - BPA speaks narrowly of performance standards and per-dam survival rates. Like their dams, they chop salmon’s exquisitely evolved life circle to a series of disconnected, independent, and unrelated episodes, and then feign wonder when their costly plans don’t work. Or just as problematically – claim victory when these isolated performance standards are met but nevertheless fail to restore the circle.

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The Northwest today might just be at the leading edge of a new territorial expansion - as salmon re-inhabit old haunts. Of course, this change hasn’t happened by itself. This emerging era of restoration has been accomplished only through the dedicated efforts of smart, creative, persistent people – people ready and willing to work together to find better ways to help salmon, rivers, and communities. And additional progress in 2014 and beyond will only come the same way. The challenges continue to mount – agencies and elected leaders remain stuck in the last century, climate impacts are here and intensifying, federal resources are shrinking. To meet these challenges head-on, we’ll need new and stronger connections and commitments to protect and restore this place we all live in and love.

Thanks to our many friends and allies for your smart, creative persistence.

Here’s to a wonderful, healthy, and expansive new year.

Save Our wild Salmon Coalition

*SOS is excited to partner with Patagonia and the award-winning filmmakers at Felt Soul Media to host a series of screenings in the Northwest and nationally next year of DamNation – a new film about America’s growing dam removal/river restoration movement. Go here to make a tax-deductible donation to support this film tour and other SOS programs in 2014. Thank you.

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