Unfolding comment period gives Idahoans a voice for salmon

After two decades and five failed attempts to write a legal and biologically-sound plan to keep Idaho’s endangered salmon from going extinct, the federal government has announced a fall meeting schedule to gather public input about how to manage dams in the region.

The schedule was published in the Federal Register today and announces region-wide meetings that start Oct. 24 and run through Dec. 13. It consists of 15 meetings, four of which will be in Idaho: Oct. 26 in Priest River, Oct. 27 in Bonners Ferry, Nov. 16 in Lewiston and Nov. 29 in Boise. The public comment period opens today and closes Jan. 17.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the people of the Pacific Northwest to speak with one voice on behalf of free flowing rivers and abundant salmon,” said Tom Stuart, an Idaho Rivers United board member and ardent advocate for salmon recovery. “We’re less than thrilled that the agencies in charge of this process have scheduled it on top of a presidential election cycle and the holiday season, but we’re confident Idahoans will be heard loud and clear in the weeks and months ahead.”

The three-month process is being undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA Fisheries and Bonneville Power Administration and is the result of a May 4 federal court ruling won by a coalition of conservation and sport fishing organizations, including Idaho Rivers United and the Sierra Club in Idaho. In that ruling, federal District Judge Michael Simon lambasted the federal government for failing to show that its dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers aren’t driving endangered salmon and steelhead further toward extinction. It was the fifth consecutive time in 25 years that a federal judge has overturned a salmon plan; Simon is the third judge to do so.

Simon, however, went further than his predecessors and required that the federal government write an Environmental Impact Statement that considers an array of options. Simon wrote he doubted such a document could be written without thoroughly considering lower Snake River dam removal. Federal agencies then announced they would undertake a five-year process to write the document.

“Idaho’s salmon and people need help now, and they need certainty now,” Stuart said. “Five more years of salmon slaughter because of unnecessary dams is unconscionable. We need to free the Snake now.”

The Sierra Club’s Idaho director, Zack Waterman, pointed out that, despite $15 billion spent on techno fixes and other failed measures, salmon are no closer to recovery than they were two decades ago. 

“This is not just a historic opportunity to save Idaho’s wild salmon but also a chance to restore an entire river ecosystem," he said. "It would be one of the largest fishery restoration projects in human history and is an enormous economic opportunity for the state.”

Lana Weber is community engagement associate for the Idaho Conservation League, which is helping get the public get involved. She reiterated that this process is about people, and the more people the better.

“Public turnout and participation in this process is vital,” Weber said. “We are looking to the conservation community, fishing and outdoor businesses to play a role in stepping up and building a voice in the right direction for Idaho’s salmon.”