Businesses write Obama to request economic vitality via restored wild salmon

As owner of the Hook, Line and Sinker tackle shop in downtown Riggins, Rexann Zimmerman shares why healthy returns of wild salmon and steelhead are integral to the economic health of her community.

With national and international markets taking their biggest slides in nearly three years earlier this week, more than 1,000 Idaho and Pacific Northwest business owners called on the Obama administration on Tuesday, Aug. 9, to do more to energize the Northwest’s economy by restoring endangered salmon.

Recovering salmon, they said in their letter to the president, would “put thousands of people to work, and help to build a cleaner energy future.”

“Many businesspeople whose livelihoods depend upon salmon, fishing, healthy rivers, outdoor recreation, and clean energy welcomed your presidency with hope and confidence — expecting much-needed change,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, your administration continues to endorse an ineffective and illegal status quo Columbia Basin salmon policy.”

Last week a federal district judge in Portland overturned the Obama administration’s blueprint for managing salmon, declaring the document “arbitrary and capricious.” This was the fourth time in 20 years a federal judge has ruled the government’s approach illegal.

“The federal court ruling that the current Columbia Basin plan is illegal provides the opportunity to make a decisive change that protects existing jobs and creates many more new ones by restoring the Northwest’s priceless salmon and steelhead runs — once the largest in the world,” the business owners wrote.

More than 160 diverse Idaho business leaders joined in signing the letter to the president. Ranging from tackle shop owners to fishing outfitters and restaurant owners to realtors, they are intent on the message they’re sending to the president.

“Salmon mean business for our town,” said letter signer Kim Olson, who owns the River Rock Café in Riggins, where the Salmon River borders town. “This ruling from Judge Redden makes it possible for folks to figure out how to bring back wild, self-sustaining runs of salmon, and there’s no doubt that would be good for towns like Riggins.”

As an example, Olson said she hires more staff at her restaurant during salmon fishing season — and would hire more still if salmon runs were virile like they used to be.

Not far down the highway in Riggins is the Salmon River Motel, which Tom Anderson has owned for 17 years. Like Olson, Anderson said there’s no doubt that healthy salmon runs mean big business for rural Idaho towns like Riggins.

“For every business in Riggins — motels, restaurants, gas stations — the whole entire town depends on a healthy sustainable fish population in the river,” he said. “The biggest thing that kills the fish are the four ineffective low-water dams on the lower Snake River.

“When 99 percent of the scientists say dam removal brings back great populations of healthy, wild fish, why is it that politics derail their well-done research?” he asked. “Judge Redden’s rejection of this salmon plan is an opportunity for the president to make a decisive, positive change in a failed policy — and to help create jobs in towns like Riggins as he does.”

According to a February 2005 study by Ben Johnson Associates, Inc., a restored salmon and steelhead fishery in Idaho would generate up to $544 million in direct and indirect angler spending annually. Direct expenditures were estimated at $196 million, while indirect expenditures tallied $348 million. More than half the spending would be in Idaho’s rural riverside communities, but it would also extend well beyond those towns.

“This level of economic support is important not only to the river towns most directly affected, but also to the rest of the state,” stated the study, titled The Potential Economic Impact of Restored Salmon and Steelhead Fishing in Idaho. “For the state’s larger cities this impact may appear insignificant. However, the bottom line reflects an important contribution…”

This is something Kerry Brennan knows well. As owner of Rapid River Outfitters in Riggins, Brennan guides fishing trips on the Salmon River and is part of an economy that has built itself on salmon.

“We’re disappointed that the Obama administration has not varied from the Bush plan to effectively recover salmon, and the judge has seen that, too,” he said. “Being an outfitter in a town that is dependant on anadromous fish runs, we have a big economic interest in making sure that everything can be done to help recover them.”

Such sentiment is shared across Idaho, from Stanley to the city of Salmon, and from Riggins to the Clearwater River. Idaho business owners want wild, self-sustaining and fishable populations of salmon in their rivers. And with his ruling last week, Judge Redden has opened the window to that possibility again.

“Finally, a ray of hope,” said Jane McCoy, who owns McCoy’s Tackle and Gift Shop in Stanley. “Judge Redden’s decision will help not only the salmon but also the economy of the mountain community of Stanley, Idaho — the historic destination of these magnificent fish.”