Oregon governor calls for salmon solutions table

BOISE — Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber yesterday announced his commitment to a new, inclusive stakeholder dialogue to end decades of legal stalemate over endangered wild salmon recovery in the Snake River basin.

“The governor’s call for a collaborative stakeholder process is well-timed,” said IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy. “We have a window of opportunity right now to sit down with all affected stakeholders in this issue and work toward real solutions that are legal and biologically sound, and also work for power producers, farmers, tribes and shipping interests. This is the kind of leadership we’ve been waiting for, and we’re hopeful that other Northwest political leaders will join Oregon’s governor.”

In his Sunday, Sept. 23, guest opinion published in The Oregonian (posted online Saturday) Kitzhaber said the time for collaborative talks has arrived.

“We are a region with an identity and a fate inextricably bound to that of our salmon and steelhead,” wrote Kitzhaber. “We know where 20 years of litigation has gotten us … We can do better if, over the next year, our region can work out how to manage our Columbia as a river rather than simply preparing for yet another visit to the courtroom.”

Kitzhaber’s call for collaboration echoes sentiments previously expressed by senior Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch.

“Senator Mike Crapo was right when he called for a collaborative table in 2009, and Governor Kitzhaber is right now,” Sedivy said. “We have a real opportunity today to pursue a new and effective path to recover wild salmon, rebuild jobs, protect communities and invest in a clean energy economy.”

Kitzhaber’s announcement follows the Aug. 2, 2011, ruling by a federal judge in Portland, Ore., that the government’s fourth salmon recovery plan was, like its predecessors, illegal. It must be rewritten by Jan. 1, 2014.

IRU board member Tom Stuart said Kitzhaber’s proposal is a welcomed new tack in the legal and political discussions that have surrounded wild salmon recovery in the Columbia-Snake Basin. 

“Pacific salmon states have been in litigation over federal dams and wild salmon in the Columbia Basin for two decades,” Stuart said. “The federal government’s failure to craft an effective and legal recovery blueprint has wasted too much time already. And the Bonneville Power Administration’s failure to consult seriously with key stakeholders, including fishing and conservation groups, the Nez Perce tribe and the state of Oregon underscores the need for a new approach.

“If policy makers are serious about restoring healthy, fishable populations of wild salmon and steelhead we’ve got to find a new path forward. Instead of continuous litigation, it’s time for the parties who depend on the river and its natural resources to come together to create a workable plan for everyone, not just a few interests.”

Kitzhaber does not stand alone. With his appeal for a stakeholder process, he joined other political leaders who have called for collaborative talks, but he also joined more than 1,140 businesses from across the country who in August 2011 wrote President Obama to ask for stakeholder talks to be convened. In November, a bipartisan group of 52 members of the U.S. House of Representatives also asked Obama to begin settlement talks.

It’s a call that sits well with Gary Lane, who owns Wapiti River Guides in Riggins, Idaho. 

“In Riggins, the economy ebbs and flows depending on how the fish return,” Lane said. “This is great news for towns like Riggins, where anything we can do to restore wild salmon is a much needed shot in the arm for our economy.”

The Columbia and Snake River Basin was once the most productive salmon and steelhead watershed in the world, with up to 30 million fish returning annually to spawn. They nourished an entire ecosystem and were at the center of Pacific Northwest cultures and economies. Nearly half of those fish began and ended their lives in the Snake River and its tributaries in central Idaho, southeast Washington and northeast Oregon.

But dams and habitat destruction have pushed salmon to the brink of extinction. Today, less than 1 percent of that historical abundance remains, and all of Idaho’s remaining salmon — chinook, sockeye and steelhead — are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Further, this year’s adult salmon returns are down significantly with Idaho sockeye and summer chinook falling almost 70 percent from last year, and steelhead down about 50 percent so far.

The Snake River once produced about half of all the summer steelhead and spring/summer chinook, said Bert Bowler, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist. And in that universe of salmon-rich tributaries, the Salmon River alone produced 39 percent of all the spring/summer chinook — in the entire Columbia Basin.

“So the bottom line is, especially for the folks who like to de-emphasize the importance of lower-Snake River dam removal, we’re missing the biggest single opportunity in the entire Columbia system to recover salmon and steelhead,” Bowler said. “The habitat is intact and protected, but we’ve got to deal with the migration corridor. There’s feeding habitat in the ocean, and there’s spawning and nursery habitat in the tributaries of the Snake River Basin, especially in the Salmon River of central Idaho.”

Sedivy summarized further.

“Three administrations — Clinton, Bush and, thus far, Obama — have consistently ignored science and the law, pouring billions of dollars into ineffective measures that have failed to restore a vital natural resource,” he said. “As a result, the four federal salmon plans produced since 1995 have been found inadequate and illegal in federal court. Governor Kitzhaber is joining other elected leaders, thousands of business owners and others in calling for a new approach. This is a common-sense step toward providing certainty for our region, certainty for the region’s ecological integrity, economy, culture, traditions and the legacy we leave for our children.”