Last week a packed Boise State Andrus Center room listened in rapt attention as both Congressman Mike Simpson and Governor Brad Little spoke at a conference on energy, salmon, agriculture, and community. Restoring Snake River salmon and steelhead runs that are dangerously close to blinking out was the conference’s major theme. Meeting energy needs and maintaining agricultural ways of life were important caveats to the discussion.
The unspoken driving force for the conference was of course what it would take to breach the four lower Snake River dams, long acknowledged by conservation groups as crucial to recovering salmon and steelhead runs in Idaho. What different stakeholders would need to maintain their livelihoods in the wake of such a decision was an important question that panel discussions throughout the day hoped to foster. The panels were filled with representatives that ran the gamut from conservation, tribes, and fisheries to agriculture, energy, and navigation. What united and galvanized those at the conference, however, were the speeches by the Idaho leaders present.
In his speech, Simpson recounted a particularly impactful trip to Marsh Creek near the Middle Fork of the Salmon. By habitat standards the river should have been teeming with salmon and steelhead, instead, he saw a single fish. “She swam 900 miles to get back to Marsh Creek. All to lay her eggs for the next generation of salmon. It was the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one,” Simpson said. “These are the most incredible creatures, I think, that God has created. It is a cycle God created. We shouldn’t mess with it.”
Simpson went on to say, “You have got to ask yourself, after spending $16 billion on salmon recovery over the last how many years, is it working?” He answered that himself, “All of Idaho’s salmon runs are either threatened or endangered. Look at the number of returning salmon and the trend line is not going up. It is going down.”
With a sense of urgency in mind, Simpson said he has not been afraid to ask the hard questions. Many questions swirl around Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), who markets the power generated by the dams and is in financial trouble. “You cannot address the salmon issue without addressing dams,” he said. “You cannot address the salmon issue without addressing the challenges the BPA has. They are interwoven.”
The costs Idaho is paying (money spent mitigating for the endangered fish as well as water sent downstream), without any of the benefits (healthy, sustainable fish populations) became the speech’s main theme. “It used to be that we were all supportive of the BPA, Republicans and Democrats. But I am starting to see some division within the Pacific Northwest delegation,” he said. “Maybe I am causing some of it because I ask the question, ‘You get all the benefits, we pay all the costs. What the hell is going on?’ They don’t want to address that.”
Simpson said he and his staff had plenty of ideas, emphasizing that no one should be left behind in the process. Ideas like a rail line controlled by regional growers to keep transportation costs reasonable, as well as a revamped Northwest Power Act of 1980, passed to mitigate fish and wildlife negatively impacted by hydropower as well as assure reliable power, got many in the crowd excited. Collaborative solutions that reflect the intertwined nature of the problem will be key if the dams are to be breached.
Simpson made it clear that he was ready to push the issue forward, “Make no doubt about it. I want salmon back in Idaho in healthy and sustainable populations. Can this be done? I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if the willpower is there to do it. I don’t know if the willpower is in Congress to do it. But I will tell you that I am hard-headed enough to try.”
Governor Little spoke earlier in the day along similar lines as Simpson. He expressed concern with the current status of Idaho’s fish as well, “When it comes to salmon and steelhead, I want to state publicly right here this morning that I am in favor of ‘breaching’ the status quo.”
Little also acknowledged the changing world surrounding the issue, “Things change. Idaho must adapt to change. There are changes in the climate. There are changes in ocean conditions. What stays the same is our cumulative desire to maintain our incredible quality of life in this beautiful state.”
Little then announced his intent to create a working group managed by the Office of Species Conservation that would involve stakeholders across the state in order to find a solution to salmon recovery.
Both Idaho leaders find themselves in a time of change: change in the climate, change in the regional energy and economic landscape, and change in the public’s level of attention to the plight of wild salmon and steelhead populations. In their speeches, they chose to accept this change and even push it forward, providing much needed Idaho leadership on an issue that has been absent any for years. Both Congressman Simpson and Governor Little demonstrated that they care about this issue and what the Idaho they leave for future generations looks like.
While the many components of the issue are complex, the solution is relatively simple; by breaching the low value, high cost lower Snake River dams our native salmon and steelhead populations can recover to sustainable, healthy numbers and the BPA can assume less long term financial risk.
Of course, the many people that one way or another rely on the dams will not be left behind. It is critical to have conversations concerning what would be necessary in the event of breaching to protect people’s livelihoods and ways of life. Idaho’s political leaders stepped up at last week’s conference in a very meaningful way, now conservation groups like Idaho Rivers United must continue our push towards a solution in which recovered salmon and steelhead populations will benefit not just Idaho, but the entire Northwest.
The dams are a means to an end and there are other ways to support Northwest economies and people, both rural and urban. Our native fish populations, however, are priceless.