Salmon advocates ask Sen. Kerry for help

Sun Valley salmon advocates ask Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to help recover Northwest salmon and steelhead. (photo by Buck Drew)

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry spent a week at his family’s vacation home in Sun Valley, Idaho, to showcase his love of the Pacific Northwest and its abundant wild surroundings. Now, Kerry’s Idaho neighbors are asking the Mass. senator to take a leading role in saving one of the Northwest’s most storied wild species.

Salmon advocates are this week delivering a video to the senator from eight Sun Valley-area residents asking him to introduce legislation authroizing removal of four salmon-killing dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

“We’re asking Senator Kerry to help bring our salmon back from the edge of extinction,” said Andy Munter, one of the Sun Valley residents featured in the video. Munter is owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum. “The health of our economy, our salmon populations and our quality of life depend on our ability to bring people together to take advantage of this opportunity. Senator Kerry is a leader who can make this happen.”

Sun Valley is just 30 miles south of the headwaters of the Salmon River, where chinook and sockeye salmon once returned in abundance each summer and fall. But, with migrations to and from the Pacific Ocean hindered by four dams on the lower Snake River, salmon populations have crashed.

Snake River sockeye were given Endangered Species Act protection in 1991, and Snake River chinook were similarly listed in 1992. Since then, the federal government has failed to draft recovery plans that address the real problem — four expensive and outdated dams on the lower Snake River.

“We think there are ways in which legislation can be drawn so that we can preserve the salmon and take care of the people who are going to have a downstream effect from the removal of the dams,” said former Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig in the video.

Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, are longstanding part-time Sun Valley residents, and the family’s philanthropy has not gone unnoticed in the community. In 1994, Teresa Heinz spearheaded an effort to preserve a piece of the region’s heritage, donating $325,000 from the Heinz Family Foundation to purchase and preserve the historic Galena Lodge from an uncertain future. The historic lodge is now publicly owned and serves as a recreational hub for cross-country skiers in winter and hikers in summer.

Sun Valley’s residents are hoping for similar vision from Sen. Kerry now as salmon, an important face of Idaho’s ecological heritage, face extinction. Recent political changes in the White House and throughout the Northwest have created a momentous opportunity to recover wild salmon. With the 111th session of Congress underway, introduction of a bill by Kerry could save endangered wild salmon, create jobs and bolster rural economies throughout the Northwest. This is a vision for a brighter future that begins with removal of the four obsolete dams on the lower Snake River.

“For eight years the Bush administration blocked our call for change and blatantly ignored science and law in order to pursue a purely political agenda that only benefitted a few,” said Dr. Stephen Pauley, a retired physician featured in the film. “Now it is time for change.”

A majority of scientists agree that dam removal is the only way to save Idaho’s wild salmon. Economists and business leaders say that removing the dams could also boost the Northwest economy by $6.8 billion, adding hundreds of long-term jobs in commercial fishing, sport fishing, recreation and tourism.

“It’s going to take someone with your leadership to push it through, and that’s what we’re asking,” said Buck Drew, a dentist featured in the film.

Mitch Wood, another of the Sun Valley-area residents in the film, grew up in Central Idaho. His father was a logger who used to fish the waters of the upper salmon river for the famed anadromous fish.

“I’m a kayaker, climber, skier, hunter, fisherman — a general Idaho outdoorsman, and I like to see nature in abundance, and I think fish are an important part of the cycle,” he said. “I’m not a blast-the-dams with no understanding of what they provide kind of guy. It’s a cost-benefit issue, but the cost of keeping the dams is, for me, too high.”

Brent Estep lives in Ketchum and owns Mackay Wilderness River Trips, a raft company that organizes trips on the Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon rivers.

“We call it the Salmon River for a reason,” he said. “Historically, there have always been huge runs of fish in that river, spawning, dying and feeding a whole ecosystem up and down the river until we started damming it. Until we get rid of those dams we’re never going to get that drainage to the place where it should be.”

Pauley put it this way in the video.

” I look at our salmon the same way I do the bald eagle. Because the bald eagle represents America, so do the salmon represent the feelings people have in the Northwest about wildlife. So I want to be able to tell our kids, our grandchildren, that we did something on our watch to prevent extinction.”