By Greg Stahl, IRU
Stanley, Idaho, and Washington, D.C., don’t have much in common. The former is a rural hamlet of 100 that sits beneath the breathtaking scarp of the Sawtooth Mountains, where chinook and sockeye salmon once returned by the tens of thousands every year to spawn. The latter has a daytime population of millions, and its wilderness characteristics have more to do with the wild and frenetic pace that seems to define life in the nation’s capital.
But these two places that are thousands of miles and a world apart collided this week when Stanley Mayor Hannah Stauts walked the halls of Congress to drum up support for the Salmon Solutions and Planning Act, a bill that would help break the gridlock on efforts to recover endangered stocks of Northwest salmon and steelhead.
Stauts, 26, was the youngest female mayor in U.S. history at the time of her election in November 2005, and she is nearing the end of her first and final term. She is smart, articulate and passionate, but she said she traveled to Washington not to espouse her own opinions. She did so to relay the very real sentiments shared by the vast majority of the residents of her town.
Salmon, she said, are a central piece of Stanley’s heritage and one of the potential keystones to its economic well-being in the future. Though founded as a mining outpost in the late-1800s, Stanley has become a recreation destination for those seeking wild country, wild rivers and wild fish. As an inherent municipality to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, one of the crown jewels of the United States’ publically-owned assets, Stanley is also at the epicenter of many of the West’s natural resources, wildlife and public lands debates .
Salmon once returned to Stanley from the Pacific Ocean so thick it seemed a person could walk across a stream on their backs, but they have steadily declined since dams were erected on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington in the 1960s and 1970s. Stauts was quick to point out that the city of Stanley has stopped short of calling for those dams to be removed, but through adoption of a half-dozen resolutions by varying city councils and mayors the city has resoundingly and definitively called for recovery of its native fish.
Stauts recalled a public hearing in 2007 when the council considered adoption of its most recent resolution. Stauts said a raft guide quieted the room when he summarized the issues associated with the decline of these once-abundant fish.
“He concluded that it’s the right thing to do. I think the city and people of Stanley believe we have a moral obligation to recover these species,” Stauts said. “Salmon and steelhead are culturally and historically important, not only to Idaho but also to the Sawtooth Valley and to Stanley. What’s being well received by the people we’re talking with on Capitol Hill are the economic benefits that Stanley would realize if salmon recovery is accomplished.”
Every spring, steelhead anglers descend on the Sawtooth Valley. It’s a time of year when the small town’s tourism economy is usually soft. The summers of 2008 and 2009 were the first fishing seasons that anglers were offered chinook fishing seasons in 30 years, and the banks of the upper Salmon River bustled with anglers from throughout the Pacific Northwest. These are small indications of the potential economic benefits if self-sustaining runs of wild, harvestable salmon and steelhead can be returned to Central Idaho, Stauts said.
In fact, a 2005 study by Boise economist Don Reading estimated that restored salmon and steelhead runs could generate $544 million annually for Idaho, much of it in small communities where such economic growth would be a welcomed reprieve following decades of declines in timber, mining and ranching.
Moreover, Central Idaho’s salmon and steelhead are unique on a global scale.
“A good friend of mine calls the upper Salmon River’s salmon the Olympic champs of fish,” Stauts said. “They swim farther and higher, 900 miles and 6,000 vertical feet, than any other migratory fish. It’s difficult to believe until you see it.”
The region’s sockeye salmon were listed as endangered in 1991, followed by chinook salmon the following year. Steelhead, an ocean-going breed of trout, were listed as threatened in 1997. Sockeye salmon populations in particular have suffered, some years returning in the single digits.
Stauts said the years she’s spent as mayor have been rewarding and have been spent in a wonderful, close-knit community that sits in one of the most spectacular mountain valleys on the planet.
“Stanley’s one of the most unique places you’ll find,” she said. “It’s situated at the base of an amazing, awe-inspiring mountain range. The town itself is encircled by federally-protected lands. The view is protected, and it’s right on the banks of the Salmon River. It’s the headwaters of the Salmon River.”
Stauts’ work as mayor covered much more than salmon and included an array of tasks typical to running city government and Stanley’s proximity to public lands and varying wildlife issues.
But this week, three months before she leaves office, it was all about salmon, and Stauts said she hopes she has left members of congress with at least part of that story. It’s a story of recognizing Stanley’s heritage. It’s a story of realizing the town’s economic potential and certainty. And it’s a story of working to do the right thing for current and future generations.