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Outdoor Idaho

Outdoor Idaho

Salmon Reckoning Interviews

Idaho’s salmon are facing extinction. Idaho’s 12-term congressman, Mike Simpson, says we need to breach the four lower Snake River dams in the state of Washington. His proposal – not yet a bill – has got a lot of people talking. Salmon advocates call it far-sighted and the only way to keep Idaho’s ocean-going fish from going extinct.  Simpson’s proposal would also compensate all those impacted by the loss of the dams, to the tune of $33.5 billion. 

Opponents of dam removal say the structures allow Lewiston to function as an inland “seaport,” making it possible to barge Palouse wheat to Portland and elsewhere. The four dams -- Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Ice Harbor -- also account for about 1,000 megawatts of hydropower. Why, they ask, should we take down the dams when the real culprits are things like unfavorable ocean conditions, warming rivers, predators and over-harvest.

“To me, the science is clear. You’ve got to remove the dams,” says Simpson. “Change is coming,” says the eastern Idaho congressman, referring to the demands of the Endangered Species Act and judicial decisions of the past 20 years. “Are we going to design our future, or are we going to have it imposed on us? I think we can do a better job designing it ourselves. I think we can save salmon.” 

Outdoor Idaho interviews people on all sides of one of the most controversial and consequential issues facing the Northwest.

Introduction to "Salmon Reckoning"

Mike Simpson

Mike Simpson

Mike Simpson is a Congressman from Idaho’s 2nd Congressional district; he is currently in his 12th term in office. Simpson was also in the Idaho Legislature from 1984 until 1998, the last six years serving as Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives. Simpson’s congressional district encompasses eastern Idaho, part of Boise, as well as the Sawtooth valley, where chinook and sockeye salmon begin their life cycle. 

In 2019 Simpson released a comprehensive plan to address the plight of the salmon; but it was not a bill; in fact, he has yet to produce a bill.

Outdoor Idaho conducted a sit-down interview with Simpson in the spring of 2021. What follows are excerpts from that interview.


Why do you care about Salmon?

People have said, why does a Congressman from the Second District care about what goes on in the lower Snake River? Well, because these fish come to Idaho to spawn. And they're not coming anymore; and they're going to go extinct if we don't do something about it. 

Like I've told my staff, if we're not trying to solve a problem, then why are we here? 

What has been the response since you released your proposal in 2019?

It’s kind of the response we expected, because it has in our concept removing the dams on the lower Snake River. And if you look back through the history of the over 25 collaborative groups that have studied how to restore salmon runs, it always comes down to, ok, what are you going to do about the elephant in the room, which is the dams? And then it all breaks apart. 

Looking back 25 years ago, when I was in the State Legislature, it was the first time that anybody had ever come to me and said, you know, we ought to breach these lower Snake River dams. I started to laugh when they said that, because I thought that was the craziest idea I've ever heard. I said, you’ve got to do everything else you can to save salmon before you go to that extreme. 

Well, guess what? We've tried everything else, and nothing's worked. 

What convinced you that the four lower Snake River dams are the problem?

If you look at salmon coming back into the Columbia River basin, when they enter the Columbia river, some of them are headed for the John Day drainage; some of them for the Yakima drainage; some of them for the Snake River drainage.

They've all gone through the same ocean conditions. They all pass the same predators. They all go over the four dams on the lower Columbia River.

But the SARS Ratios, the smolt to adult ratio rate -- which is how you measure the health of a salmon run -- are good for all of those species that cross these four dams.

Then Idaho's salmon that are coming into the Stanley basin, take a right turn and go up the lower Snake River and have to go over four more dams. And when you look at their SARS rate, it is at extinction levels.

The only difference between them and those that go into the John Day and the Yakima drainage is that they go over four more dams. That's just too many. You're going to have to take those dams out if you're going to save them from going extinct.

When we started this, we talked about, ‘there's gotta be a way to get salmon back into Idaho and maintain the dams.’ The more I talked to fish biologists, the more they said, you're not going to recover these salmons with the lower Snake River dams; you're going to have to breach them. And that's the preponderance of the evidence.

But what got me is throughout history, if you look at the history of salmon in England and Ireland 200 years ago, and the debates that went on and how they lost their salmon runs, and then on the east coast, a hundred years ago on the Atlantic salmon and how they lost their salmon runs, we're having the same debate right now in the Pacific Northwest.

Different issues with essentially the same debate. And we're hoping for a different result. I think that's what Einstein called insanity.

There are so many different things that affect the salmon run, whether it's the ocean conditions, whether it's predators, climate change, all of those types of things that any individual can point to and say, No, it's not the dams; it's the ocean conditions. No, it's not the ocean conditions; it's the predators. And consequently nobody ever comes down to the ultimate solution.

And what's interesting is when the Army Corps of engineers did their latest biop, they came and they briefed me about what it was. And I said, is this going to save Idaho salmon runs? And they said, well, this is meant to be a bridge into a final solution. And I said, what is the final solution?

And they said, well, we don't know that yet. Yes, they do. They know what the final solution is, and that is you're going to have to breach these dams.

Somebody will say to me, well, it's ocean conditions. Yes, there is an oscillation that occurs every 30 years or so. It's been happening forever. Warmer water comes up in the Pacific Northwest and salmon runs go down because of the increased predation that comes up, and food supply goes down for the salmon. And then that oscillation reverses and the salmon come back.

But they'll say to me, even on those rivers that don't have dams -- the Fraser River is the one they always point to -- salmon runs are down. That's true. They are down, but they're down from a healthy level to a still sustainable level.

On the lower Snake River, when our salmon runs go down, they go down from a very low level to an extinction level. And that's the problem. I understand why people point to ocean conditions or predators. And we're doing more things trying to address the predator control thing. But, the only difference between Idaho salmon and the others is that they have four more dams to go over.

You’re asking people to make some pretty big changes.

That's the most difficult challenge we face right now: we're a human species and we don't like change. We like that the sun's going to come up tomorrow in approximately the same place it did today.

But either we're going to design the future, or it's going to be designed for us, because change is coming. Whether we like it or not, it's going to happen.

People say, Why would you want to interrupt a system that works? Yeah, it works for taking grain down the river and barging, and for energy production. It works for all that. The thing it doesn't work for are salmon; they're obviously going extinct. And I don't think that a judge is going to allow that to happen.

So do you want a judge making the decision or do you want us making the decision about what our future is going to look like?

And a couple of years ago, when I first brought this up at the Andrus summit, I said, my greatest fear is that everybody will go home and say, yeah, that really is an issue we need to address.

Everybody says, I want to recover salmon as much as anybody does. And usually what they mean when they say that is, I want to recover salmon if I don't have to change anything.

We have not only a moral obligation to try and protect these salmon and make sure they don't go extinct, we have a legal obligation, too. Every Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest, when they signed treaties with the federal government, they reserved their fishing rights. Well, guess what? Those fishing rights don't mean anything if the fish are all gone, and the reason they're gone is because of something we've done. So we have a legal obligation, I think, with the tribes to try to restore these things.

Congressman Simpson with members of the Tribes from the Columbia Basin, at the Washington State Salmon and Orca Summit, 2021. Photo by Forrest Burger

Our founding fathers established three branches of government; and it seems that the Judiciary right now is playing a key role in salmon recovery.

The Endangered Species Act -- judges take that very seriously. It almost trumps every other statute. And it makes sense. The reason is because once a species goes extinct, it's extinct forever. You don't bring it back. And in fact, if you look at the history of this, when they first started ice Harbor dam -- the first dam of the four dams on the lower Snake River -- it was authorized in 1945 and the Army Corps of Engineers kept asking for funding to start ice Harbor. Congress refused to appropriate money for it. And in 1953, they asked the chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the House, why won't you give the money to start Ice Harbor dam? And he said, because the beginning of that dam would mean the total extinction of a species; and that's something that we can't contemplate. That was 1953. We've known for a long time what this was going to do.

You come from a predominantly agricultural Congressional district. Why should farmers care about salmon?

I have spent a career defending agriculture, and I've been kind of the go-to guy in Congress whenever agriculture needed anybody. And I can go through the list of things that we've done for agriculture. I know it's still the most important industry in this state. This is an Ag state, and I wouldn't do anything to harm agriculture.

What I'm trying to do is provide some certainty and security for agriculture. They get sued all the time; and a lot of the time it's over these dams and restoring salmon. So one of the big challenges we had in this is, if you're going to take the dams out, how are you going to make the stakeholders whole?

You're going to have to replace that margin with something that doesn't put additional costs on the producers to get their grain to Portland. You're going to have to replace the energy and make sure that we can maintain the low power rates that we have in the Pacific Northwest.

I've wondered for a number of years why we're sending 487,000 acre feet of Idaho water down the river to flush salmon, past these dams. The one thing it's not doing is recovering salmon, and that's the reason we flush that water down the river. But yet in Southern Idaho, we have an aquifer that's being depleted. So pumpers in Southeast Idaho are having to reduce their pumping, which means reducing their acreage and so forth.

Couldn't we use this water better for agriculture or to recharge our aquifer rather than sending it down the river for no apparent reason? Those are challenges that we face. And the biggest part of this proposal is trying to replace those benefits that the dams have, and everyone admits these dams have a benefit.

What about the hydropower generated by the four dams you’re proposing to breach? How do you replace that?

They produce 3000 megawatts of power. You're going to have to replace it. You got to remember when those dams were put in, there were two options… and you either did a coal fire plant, or you did hydro. Today there are so many different ways to produce power that that's not our only option.

Somebody said to me one day, well, if this comes down to people or fish, then I choose people. Guess what? So do I, if that's what it comes down to. But that's not the debate. This is not about people or fish. We can actually save salmon and we can also have a healthy economy and make sure that agriculture is sustainable for the future.

Just from a cost benefit analysis, what would it mean to Idaho if the salmon numbers increased to a sustainable population?

When I look at my district, the cost of the dams are we lose the 487,000 acre feet of water that we can't use. And we lose our salmon runs, which are an economic benefit to communities like Riggins, Stanley, and other places. It’s a huge economic loss. So those are the costs to us.

What are the benefits of those dams for the people in Southern Idaho? We get about 8% of the power produced by those dams. We don't barge our grain down the river. We actually truck it to Ogden where it's milled. So we don't get the benefits of barging costs. We don't really get the benefits of the power. We can replace the power and do it as cheaply as it’s now produced.

So I keep saying, all the costs are imposed on us, and we get no benefit from it.

Where does the Bonneville Power Administration fit into the picture?

One of the challenges that we see -- and it's how this all started actually -- is the Bonneville Power Administration is facing some financial challenges. Now they will tell you that we've always made our treasury payment. The way they do it is extending out their debt. It's a little bit like using your credit card to pay your mortgage payment, and then saying, you're paying down your mortgage, but your debt keeps going up.

Talking to past administrators, they will tell you, in all honesty, they are facing financial challenges because the rural electrics that have always depended on Bonneville Power as the cheapest power, can now actually go on the open market and buy power at a cheaper rate than they can from Bonneville Power.

So one of our goals is try to make them sustainable into the future. And how do you do that? You look at all the costs that are imposed on top of the power that they sell, which the rate payers pay. One of them is fish costs, about $750 million a year, ttat rate payers pay trying to recover salmon.

We spent $17 billion trying to recover salmon. And the one thing we have not done is recover salmon. The BPA has always been the piggy bank for everybody that had a good idea; just let the BPA pay for it.

Well, all of those costs add up, and we've said, okay, if you're going to make them sustainable into the future, you've got to reduce some of these ancillary costs that go on top of this. One of them would be capping and reducing the fish costs that are imposed on us every year.

What is your time table for all this?

The reason I'm pushing it now is if you look at the numbers, they are just on a steady decline. Eventually you're going to hit zero, and they're going to go extinct. Is it going to be in two years? I doubt it. What they're telling me is that probably four cycles of salmon is how many you got left before you'd have to declare them extinct. And four salmon cycles is about 20 years.

So that's why the dams in our concept don't come out until 2031. Before you do that, you're going to have to have an alternative transportation system for those products that are barged.

You're going to have to replace the energy. So you're going to have to make those transitions before you start taking dams out. You're going to have to do some dredging behind the dams to remove the silt, so you're not just flushing silt down the river. And it's also important to note that we're not talking about blowing up the concrete in the middle of the dams. What you're going to do is remove the earthen berms around the dams and let the river flow around them and restore the natural flow of that river.

There’s a pretty hefty price tag to your proposal.

Absolutely. Anytime you're going to spend 33 and a half billion dollars and that's what we estimate. Putting new energy systems in place to replace that 3000 megawatts; a different transportation system; creating the watershed partnerships to clean up the water and improving the water quality, not just in the Snake River, but also in the Puget Sound.

And what we're looking at is trying to get that kind of resources set aside in the Columbia Basin Initiative so that, once we pass legislation, we would have the resources there to do it.

If we're going to pass legislation, I want the money set aside so that we can do it. And if they're going to pass a stimulus package… I would like to have that set aside; and if they're talking about $2 trillion, that's a lot of money, Thirty three and a half billion dollars is about one and a half percent of what they're talking, to try to transition the Pacific Northwest.

Congressman Simpson speaking at the Salmon Festival in Stanley, August 2021. Photo by Bruce Reichert

Politically speaking, your proposal is not exactly popular with a lot of people, even key members of the northwest delegation.

I’ve got to tell you, in all honesty, this is politically risky for anyone. I know just how risky this, and I understand their reluctance. But listening to Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell and Governor Inslee, they've made comments over the past several years about, we've got to recover salmon, and they seem very interested in that.

But talk is cheap When the rubber hits the road, where are they? And they've said they don't like our concept. I understand that there's some provisions in there that they don't like. That's fine. I'm just glad they want to engage in the conversation about how to do this. And as I've said from the beginning, if you've got a better idea, let's hear it, but it’s gotta be something substantial. And I'm hopeful that they are serious about engaging in this conversation and not just delaying it with another work group.

You have to be impressed with these fish that you would fight so hard for something many in your district have never seen in the wild.

They're the iconic species of the Pacific Northwest. The tribes in Nez Perce are called Salmon people. It's been part of the tribal religion for forever. I don't think you can let this species go extinct.

And if you look at the history of a salmon, it just amazes me that they are born in the high altitude streams of Idaho. They swim around for about a year and then something clicks in their brain and says, I think I'll go on a trip; and they get flushed down the Salmon River and into the Snake River. They don't swim down. They get flushed down. The current takes them.

Then they go over four dams on the lower Snake. Then they go over for more dams on the Columbia. Then they switch from a fresh water fish to a salt water fish. Then they go out and they swim around in the ocean for about five years, gather the nutrients and grow.

And then again, something clicks in their brain and says, I think I'll go home. And they find their way back to the mouth of the Columbia. They change from a salt water fish back to a freshwater fish, which is amazing to start with.

Then they climb over four dams on the lower Columbia river. Then they go over four more dams on the lower Snake River. And then they come up to where they were originally. They spawn and lay their eggs and die.

That's a lifecycle that only God could create. Maybe we shouldn't mess with it.

Again, why you? This is not necessarily a smart political move on your part.

I think part of it is that I've got older. I've come to more deeply appreciate this place we call Idaho. When I was younger, I think I just took it for granted. You were born here and this was Idaho, and this is what we did and stuff. But you know, it can change. We can lose what we have if we don't protect it.

Not for me, I'll be dead. So will you before a lot of these things happen. But for our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren and people yet unborn. I want them to have the opportunity to enjoy this state that we have had.

Virgil Moore

Virgil Moore is the retired Director of Idaho’s Fish & Game Department. He spent more than 40 years in wildlife management, eight of them as Director.  He also served as fisheries bureau chief for Idaho Fish & Game, as President of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and director of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. 


Outdoor Idaho conducted this interview with Moore in the summer of 2021. What follows are excerpts from that interview.


How certain is the scientific community that the four lower Snake River dams are the culprit?

The weight of evidence relative to that is long and heavily reviewed within the science community. The very best scientists that I know believe it's unmistakable that the lower Snake River dams are a detriment to getting to recovery goals for Idaho salmon and steelhead.

Is there a date that they give for when extinction is likely? Is it 20 years? 30 years? 

Trying to pin down a date for extinction is in my mind very difficult to do with a population of critters like salmon. They have mechanisms to cope with population swings up and down. I would not be one to put a date on it. 

Others have modeled it. There are models that give us those dates 20, 30, 40 years, a very high likelihood by the end of the century. If we don't do anything, we will be beyond the ability to see natural functional populations in the good environments that we have in Idaho. 

I do believe our fish have the capacity to recover very quickly, if we can remove those mortality factors that are holding them back. 

They do seem to be able to recover from anything we throw at them.

Salmon are amazingly resilient; they are pioneering species. If habitat is available, they'll pioneer into it and use it. They'll adapt to it. They create populations. Our salmon still retain that. That's why they're so important. That's why we've got to keep those fish. These Columbia basin stocks are one of the most productive stocks in the world, and, and we need to keep that in place, give them the chance they need, and that's what Congressman Simpson's doing. He's looking at what the fish need and what society needs.

You have a long history of studying Idaho fish, particularly salmon.

There is no surprise to me that these four lower snake dams are creating the problem they are. I go back on this issue several decades. In 1998, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission put out a position paper on what is best for the salmon. They said in 1998 that, based on the information we had then, the only way to get the kind of recovery that was needed to meet the management goals that had been set for Idahoans for their fish was to remove those four dams.

In the early 2000s, the professional societies in the three states -- the Idaho chapter in the American Fishery Society and their counterparts in Oregon and Washington -- all of those professionals voted after two years of reviewing everything to basically endorse the same concept, that we are advising society as your fishery scientists that we know of no other way to get there. That was 20 years ago.

And we spent the last 20 years narrowing that uncertainty down to the point where folks like Congressman Simpson can now come out and say, there is very little, if no uncertainty, about the fact that we can't get functional recovery with these dams in place.

Of course, taking down the four dams does not guarantee that salmon will return in large numbers to Idaho.

Certainly the other issues are real. The four H's, as we commonly call them, of hatcheries, harvest, hydro-power, and habitat have long been the focus of work over the last 20 plus years.

And as we've worked to overcome all of those limitations, you could also add a fifth: ocean heat.

We've done phenomenal habitat work in Idaho. Over the last 20 years, you only have to look at the salmon river basin and the Lemhi River basin, and some of the work that's been done there; the Clearwater, some of the work that the tribes and the state have done up there have been phenomenal at getting the areas ready for production for these fish.

We've managed harvest down to the point where it's almost not an issue at all. Predation is a form of harvest and, yeah, it's real; but it's real because our numbers are so low. It's real because we have allowed the predators to move into areas where they weren't traditionally at, but we know how to manage them. And we're working on that the best we can.

And the list goes on and on, with the efforts we've taken to transport fish to put cold water in, to augment flows; we've done all of those and we've studied them and evaluated them in real time, and still are.

We've done most of the things that need to be done. We are working on almost all of those activities now, and in many ways have pushed them almost to their limits. We know how to capture those sockeye before they get to hot water, move them right back here to Idaho and try to artificially hold them until they can either respond naturally, or we spawn them and put them back into the hatchery system.

And we've had phenomenal collaborative work with the Tribes; and the federal NOAA fisheries has been an extremely valuable partner in doing that.

So those are the direct fish things that we can do. Idaho has such a limited pallet of things that we can do, though. Once the fish get into Idaho, that's where we have the authority to manage them. Our ability to do anything down-river comes from collaborative work or other rules and laws that give us some say in that.

Are these fish amazing enough to justify the fight that breaching the dams requires?

The real beauty, I guess, from a science standpoint of salmon and steelhead and other fishes that migrate through long areas is not just their ability to migrate, but their ability to switch from freshwater to saltwater. It is biologically a phenomenal activity that occurs; their whole ability to adjust blood water and salt levels has to go 180 degrees. They switched from fresh water where salt is low to saltwater where it's high; their ability to do that requires them to go through a complete physiological change. And they do the same thing when they come back up. Their long migrations and their importance to us is also their ability to bring huge amounts of nutrients from the ocean back into a nutrient-poor area like we have with the Idaho batholith.

I did my graduate work on that aspect of salmon, their ability to smolt and what small amounts of contaminants could do to their ability to survive that seawater challenge. And they are sensitive creatures, but they're also, because of their biology, able to transcend a lot of that. But we've put them right up against the ceiling. There's no space left any more with what we've done with the modifications in the system. And they're at the maximum extent of their biological capacity. When they're most sensitive is as smolts going downriver.

How do you deal with the lethal water temperatures in the rivers?

The issue of heat and temperature within the migratory corridor is an important one. It's one that the managers have been dealing with for more than a couple of decades. And we're very fortunate that we have Dworshak reservoir that's deep and cold with selector gates on it that can give us different temperatures. And that has proven to be one of the more valuable tools for our main-stem managers at moderating the effects of water temperature during very critical periods of time. Our temperatures are at lethal levels today as we talk. It's not the first time that has happened and it won't be the last time

Didn't Idaho once poison salmon at Redfish Lake?

Responsibility to our fish is legal and large. Certainly, as with most government entities out there, there have been things that have happened that we have to be responsible for.

Often I hear people say, 'How can you talk? The Idaho Department of Fish and Game went in with a fish toxicant into the Stanley basin area and killed fish.' And the answer to that is, 'Yep, we did that.' We don't do that anymore. We knew after we tried it, that that wasn't going to work. And fortunately the resilience of our sockeye in Idaho allowed them to come back.

And certainly the efforts by the state of Idaho to kill fish up there so we could have a functional sport fishery for Idahoans in there was not necessarily related to that we don't like salmon. It was related to, we're trying to do something with what's up here that doesn't have any sport fishing left in it because of a lot of other factors. And that was the justification. It would never be used again in this particular case, but it's part of our history that we've learned from, and we don't make those kinds of decisions any longer.

What can we learn from the removal of two dams on the Elwha River in Washington, beginning in 2011?

I think the Elwha River is an example of how quickly these fish respond to a new opportunity to pioneer into habitat. They existed there before; all you had to do was open it up and they were right back there. Even though the habitat hadn't optimized itself, the fish were right there.

I believe with the lower snake dams, certainly you're going to see an immediate response to the lifting of that bottleneck that occurs with both downstream migration and upstream migration. And it's going to be impressive to see.

These fish have a five-year life cycle, the way that they put their eggs and come back as adults. And you, as long as you've got one or two of those year classes left, they can fill in the gaps pretty quickly. If you go for a full generation with no replacement of these wild fish, then you're basically out of business.

We came very close to that when these fish were listed, back in the nineties. But we got some breaks and the fish came back just enough. And now we're headed back down again.

What do you think of the Congressman's proposal? Does it have a chance?

Congressman Simpson's proposal is unique in terms of his stepping across state and authority boundaries to propose something that affects such a large number of people. The necessary support that he's gonna need politically to get this done is fairly huge. But he is a very astute public servant elected to get things done for us. Remember, this is a federal government problem that created this salmon issue for us. These are federal dams.

If we know anything in natural resources today, the only way to move forward is with these huge collaborative efforts that bring everybody to the table to sit down and talk. This is all about everybody trying to find a win. Yes, there are always going to be some people that don't agree. But as a societal thing, Congressman Simpson's proposal and the work of the three governors that they've been working on, trying to bring everybody to the table, is refreshing to see our elected officials step forward and put it on the line to try to resolve this conflict that could continue to actually divide and hurt our state and our region.

David Reeploeg

David Reeploeg

David Reeploeg is Vice President for Federal Programs at TRIDEC and Executive Director at Hanford Communities in Kennewick, Washington. He was a panelist at the Andrus Center gathering in 2021 to discuss salmon recovery. 

Outdoor Idaho conducted this interview in the summer of 2021. What follows are excerpts from that interview. 


Why are the four lower Snake River dams important to you?

The dams are an incredibly important part of the economy, the lifestyle, the history of eastern Washington and central Washington. They provide carbon-free low cost power, especially at the times when we need it most, in the coldest days of the winter time and the hottest days of summer. 

We have a very vibrant agriculture industry in this region and we use the dams and the navigation that they provide to move an incredible amount of freight down the river. 

What do you say to folks who want the dams to come out?

I understand that a lot of people, including a lot of folks in central and eastern Washington, are very invested in the health and the long-term longevity of salmon species throughout the Pacific Northwest. And so I certainly understand the desire to ensure that we have salmon for generations to come. 

I think where we have a difference of opinion is how important the four lower Snake River dams are to the long-term survival of the salmon. We recognize that the dams can sometimes create some challenges for fish migration. But also we've seen that some of the dams have some of the most advanced fish passage technologies in the world. We've seen 95% or more fish passage and survival across each one of the four lower Snake River dams. And at the end of the day, you can ask 10 different experts and get 10 different answers as to whether or not the dams need to be removed in order to ensure fish survival.

Because they are so incredibly important to so many industries and communities throughout central and eastern Washington, and even further beyond that in the Pacific Northwest, our contention has always been that, unless we know for absolute certain that the dams must be removed in order to ensure the survival of the fish species, then let's try everything else first.

We know that there is a lot more that can be done with predation. We know that there's a lot more that can be done with working to improve habitat, working to improve ocean conditions. And we've also seen that even in undammed rivers, across the Pacific Northwest, down to California, up to Alaska and even internationally across the world, that salmon numbers are declining.

And so it's difficult to make the argument that just because of these four lower Snake River dams, we have the challenges that we have.

And also I would just add that oftentimes salmon numbers are sort of cyclical; we might have a trend over a few years where they're going down and people are understandably very concerned. But then they come back up and they go back down and come back up. It is a very interconnected system of the rivers, of the fish passage systems, of the hatcheries, of ocean conditions, of predation, of commercial harvest.

There's just so many things that all are a part of the conversation about long-term survival for our fish species in the Pacific Northwest; but it seems like oftentimes people only point to those four lower Snake River dams as the ticket to ensuring that they're going to survive in the long-term. And we just don't believe that's necessarily the case.

Now I would just add also that when you consider all the very significant impacts that removing the dams would have, I think we need to know for absolute certain that it would have the desired result. Even Congressman Simpson has said that he's uncertain that removing the dams will ensure the whole effort is a success. And so until we can know that for certain, it seems like we're asking for a lot of people in industries and communities to give up a whole lot, without a lot of certainty.

The people with a business interest in this area and interested in keeping the economy going and the area thriving – do they have suggestions about what might be an alternative to bringing these dams down?

Well, one thing that I said at the Andrus Center conference a couple months ago is that I'm certainly not an expert on probably any of the issues, whether it's electricity generation, ecosystems, ecology, or shipping. But what I do know is that there are a number of other factors that do impact the survival of salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest.

We know that there's a great number of sea lions and seals down below Bonneville dam that are eating a lot of salmon as they come back upstream. We know that there's a commercial harvest that catches quite a few fish every year. We know that there perhaps could be opportunities with increasing the sort of advanced hatchery production techniques that have been developed in recent years. There's just a great deal of opportunities that we still haven't really fully developed. And I feel like those should be really explored and implemented before we go down the road of taking this step that you can't come back from.

What about the Tribes who are saying this is our lifestyle? For generations and generations, we have been fishing these rivers. What would you say to them?

I certainly respect both their opinion and the very important role that salmon have had in tribal cultures and communities since time immemorial. And so I completely understand and appreciate their perspective. But I would just say that at the most fundamental level, we agree. We would love to see those salmon come back to the numbers that they would like to have. But we just don't believe that removing the dams will be that panacea, will be that solution that will get us to where we would like to be.

We'd love to work with them to identify comprehensive solutions that can help us get closer to where we'd like to be, but that wouldn't have the detrimental impacts that removing the dams would have.

One of the things that makes our entire region competitive is the fact that we do have low-cost, clean, non-carbon emitting power. And that allows us to attract industries. Historically we have grown much of the Pacific Northwest's largest industries because of the low-cost power. They create a lot of great family wage jobs here. And so without the dams, we'd lose some of our competitive advantage. Also, we're looking at the next 10, 20, 30 years; we have new legislation in the state of Washington, the Clean Energy Transformation Act, which would require us to generate anywhere between 25 to 35 gigawatts of new power before 2045.

And that's with the Snake River dams in place. If we didn't have those dams, that would be a much larger number. We recognize that, even by the end of this decade, we're going to need upwards of eight gigawatts of new power. And we also see this trend, that our future energy generation needs to be clean. It needs to be non-carbon emitting.

And so we hear from the White House, from Congress, from our state legislature, that it is incredibly important that we have this new clean energy generation and to replace coal and natural gas. So it seems counterintuitive to take away these carbon-free energy resources at a time when we need them most.

And then when we look even toward the future of electric vehicles being integrated more and more into our communities and moving away from natural gas and towards electricity, our energy demands are only going to grow. And this base load power is especially important on the hottest days of the summer and the coldest days of the winter. I mean, it's incredibly important, not just for the Tri-Cities, but for our region to keep these here.

But people will say these dams don't put out enough power to make them viable, that we have wind power; we have solar. The power that these dams are generating is often excess power that gets sold to California.

Well, in the Tri-Cities we really like to think of ourselves as the clean energy hub of the Pacific Northwest. You can drive 30 miles from the Tri-Cities and touch almost every form of clean energy generation that you can think of, whether it's wind or solar, hydro-power, nuclear. And so we're very supportive of growing more wind, growing more solar, growing more advanced nuclear. But the reality is the power that these dams produce is baseload. And it's the kind of power that runs no matter what -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- whether the wind is blowing or not, whether the sun's shining or not. And when we look to the future needs of our region, by 2045 when the Clean Energy Transformation Act comes into full effect in Washington, we'd need something like 110-120 gigawatts of additional power.

We know that the right mix needs to be some new wind, some new solar, but also it needs to be that base load power, which is why the dams and advanced nuclear power and other base load generating sources are so important. And the reality is that 80% of the time, we have more power than we need; but where things like these four Snake River dams are especially important is the 20% of the time where you do need more power than is otherwise available.

And we're seeing reports now with this heat wave that we're experiencing in the summer of 2021, that there are very serious concerns about blackouts and brownouts all across the Western United States, including here in Washington state, in Idaho and Oregon. And if we're taking some of our base load generating resources offline, that's only going to make that problem worse. Industries need to have consistent, reliable, and affordable power. And when you start taking away the affordability, you start taking away the reliability, then they start looking at other regions of the country.

These dams create reservoirs. Some people say that these reservoirs are warming up the water and the warmer water is attracting predator fish that are in turn gobbling up these smolts.

For the most part, these are run of the river dams. They don't hold significant amounts of water back behind the dams. Do I mean that there's no impact on river temperatures? No, I believe that there probably is some from the dams and there might be other ways that you can manage the system to reduce the temperature.

But one thing that we do know too is that the state of Washington's temperature requirements are actually two degrees lower than they are in Idaho. And so the water that enters Washington state from Idaho is oftentimes already above the permitted temperature in Washington state. So I think it's an issue of not only the dams and how you operate the hydropower system, but how do you operate the rivers regionally and not just here in Washington state.

Saving the salmon – it’s been an on-going issue for decades, and it is incredibly complex.

In my career, I've had a chance to be involved in a lot of sticky issues, whether it's been other river basins or forest health management. And where I've seen that there's the greatest level of success is when there is really a good faith collaborative process, where all of the interested parties are working together towards a common goal or common solution.

I think what's sort of challenging about the Snake River dams conversation is that the region is so large. There are so many stakeholders, and there's so many different kinds of entrenched perspectives. And I know a lot of folks who want to see the Snake River dams removed; they don't want to be part of a conversation that includes keeping the Snake River dams.

And there are folks who strongly believe that the dams shouldn't be removed, and they have a hard time being part of a conversation that involves potentially removing the Snake River dams. And so I think that to the extent that we possibly can, we need to just continue to talk to each other, and to talk to the experts.

There are oftentimes competing studies or competing experts and competing arguments. It's oftentimes really challenging to know exactly what the right answer is. But we are fortunate in that we have a whole lot of experts at several federal agencies, whether it's NOAA, the Bureau of Reclamation, the BPA, the Army Corps of Engineers who do this for a living. I think we need to work with them. We need to work with our federal and state lawmakers and elected officials, and then work across communities, to try to identify the things that we can do that might have a meaningful impact.

And when we look at the price tag of Congressman Simpson's proposal, there's a lot that you could do to address a lot of the challenges that salmon face with a small fraction of that $34 billion.

One of the reasons Simpson is bringing this up now is for 25 plus years, every plan that they've come forward with has been struck down by a judge. Eventually what Congressman Simpson's worried about is that a federal judge is going to have to rule, based on the Endangered Species Act, based on the 1980s Power Act and say that those dams will probably have to come down.

I think the Tri-Cities has really had a very good working relationship with Congressman Simpson. He’s been a very strong partner of ours on funding for the Department of Energy priorities, whether it's the Hanford site or Pacific Northwest National Lab. He's very knowledgeable about those issues, with the Idaho National Laboratory being within his district.

I appreciate the approach that he's taken to putting this concept together and that he is trying to take a holistic look at all the negative impacts that could potentially come from removing the dams. But that being said, I think it's very uncertain whether a federal judge could direct the removal of the four lower Snake River dams. I think most members of Congress would believe that would be a decision that Congress makes, not a judge.

In a scenario where a judge did order a removal of one or more of the dams, Congress would still have to appropriate the money to do it. And so Congress would certainly have a role. But I think a lot of folks would argue that they are the deciding entity on whether or not the dams remain.

It's sort of interesting that there's been an entire industry built up around these dams, either keeping them or removing them. There's a whole lot of organizations, a whole lot of attorneys whose full-time job is to work these issues. That's not a bad thing. That's how the system was designed; it's not hard to continue litigation in the courts.

But the conversation has been evolving; also the science is continuing to evolve. We better understand ways to improve fish passage and better understand ways to operate the river system. We better understand ways that you can address predation. So the litigation has at least in part been about making the system run better. And if it has to be done in the courtroom, I think there's a better way that we could do it, but I guess that's the path that some folks are choosing to take.

Congressman Simpson's desire to have this regional conversation is a very good one. My concern has always been that once you remove the dams, you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. What I think might be an interesting conversation to have is, instead of $34 billion for a plan that would include removing the dams, spend half of that -- $17 billion -- on a plan that would retain the dams, but do all these other things that we know could be very impactful and could help our fish in the Pacific Northwest region.

At the Andrus Conference you mentioned a Hail Mary pass.

Removing the dams would be like throwing a Hail Mary pass in a football game, when you don't even really know the score, because we don't know that removing the dams would have the desired effect. And so why throw that Hail Mary pass, which could cause you to lose the football game when you don't even know if you're behind?

If you're nine points behind, that Hail Mary pass isn't going to help you. So you really need to know the score first. We don't know the score. We don't know that removing the dams is going to have that desired effect. I still feel like removing them would be a Hail Mary pass.

David Doeringsfeld

David Doeringsfeld

David Doeringsfeld has been the general manager of the Port of Lewiston for 27 years. A series of four dams, built in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, has made Lewiston, Idaho, a “seaport,” even though it’s more than 400 miles from the Pacific Ocean. 


Outdoor Idaho conducted this interview with Doeringsfeld in the summer of 2021. What follows are excerpts from that interview.


What don’t you like about the Simpson proposal?

The Snake River system is integral to the economy of north central Idaho. I mean, we're a natural resource based economy. We grow about 90% of the soft white wheat grown in the U S;  95% of that is exported overseas, primarily to the Pacific rim. This is our highway to international markets.

The Tribes say the salmon are disappearing, in part because of the lower Snake River dams.

There's a lot of controversy right now as to, do we keep the lower Snake River dams in place? You have environmental groups that are very heartfelt on wanting to remove these dams; tribes and their culture wanting to remove these dams. Looking at the actual impact of dam removal -- is that the silver bullet that's going to bring back abundant fish runs?

I've been involved in this issue 27 years. And I truly believe that answer is no. The Congressman right now has a concept out there that has more to do about trying to eliminate lawsuits than trying to return abundant fish runs.

So you don’t believe the salmon would come back with the removal of the four dams?

There's kind of two computer models out there that are driving this discussion. And one is a CSS model by the fish passage center. And the other one is the life cycle model by NOAA fisheries. 

The CSS model says, if we take those dams out, we're going to see 170% increase in returning adults. The lifecycle model says, we're going to see 14% increase in returning adults. 

You know, you would think before we take such a measure as to take these dams out, you might want to see what's wrong with these models right now, that you're getting such a disparity between the two. I mean, right now the biggest disparity is how it treats delayed mortality. And that issue has never been really resolved scientifically. And so I would advocate that before we take such an extreme measure as dam removal, let's make sure we're doing the right thing.

Congressman Simpson says the time for talk is over and it's time to act. There's been EIS studies, there's been court cases. There's been papers written that say, if we don't do it soon, these fish may be gone. You feel differently.

Historically, let's take a look at the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. There were 50 canneries on the lower Columbia river. When Bonneville dam went in, in 1938, we had already decimated our fish runs. We were down to less than half a million returning adults, and we never went beyond that.

And the first time we went beyond a million was like in the early 2000’s. And so, we had dams in place for a long time, from 1938 to like say the early 2000’s before we started seeing our fish numbers starting to come back up. Between 2000 -2014 we went from roughly 6-700,000 returning adults to 2.5 million. Now, in 2015, due to climate change, we had warming conditions in the ocean.

We had the blob that formed off the west coast. And then we saw things go from 2.5 million fish and headed down. And it is very serious, but this is a change in ocean conditions.

I mean, from 2000 to 2014, dams were in place. All the improvements that we had put into those dams were making a difference. Now, what has changed is the conditions in the oceans. Fish spend three years in the ocean, and three weeks in the river system right now. We're trying to fix an ocean problem with in-river experiments.

What would taking out the dams do to the port of Lewiston?

If any one of the Snake River dams were taken out, the port of Lewiston -- as far as being able to move cargo -- ceases to exist. As far as moving anything on the river, you have to maintain a 14 foot channel. That’s what the barge-tug system is built around. When a grain barge is loaded, it's loaded to 13 feet, six inches. So it's taking advantage of all the draft that's available in the river system. So it is critical to us that the dams stay in place.

If we lost that river system, it would dramatically change what we grow in this area. I mean, we more than likely wouldn't be growing that soft white wheat. The transportation costs would just be too high.

But if the port goes, there are folks out there that are saying Lewiston would become a salmon mecca, a recreational mecca, like few others.

I would take issue with maybe some of that. In 1992, there was a test draw down-down by the Corps of Engineers. And that was done over a 30 day period. It turned Lewiston and Clarkston into a stinking mud hole, and that's no exaggeration.

The Congressman's concept, while it throws some money at trying to make improvements along the waterfront, what you're going to do is reduce the river that we have right now by about two thirds; and you're going to have nothing but star thistle and willow brush from the dikes to the water's edge.

The concept of being able to say, well, you'll just find another way to be able to move your commodities out of the area, the only kind of feasible route would be looking at rail. The Congressman has put $1.5 million out there to say, you figure out what you want to do in moving your cargo.

Well, the idea of suddenly developing an alternative rail system and getting the construction permits and everything that would be needed to build an alternative rail between Lewiston and wherever it might be going, could take 20 or 30 years just to construct, get the permits, and everything to do it.

So, the plan has to be implementable. And I don't think the Congressman's plan you can implement it. So if you don't have a plan you can't implement, you really don't have a plan.

A lot of people are saying that the Bonneville Power Administration is kind of mismanaging this whole thing. What do you think about that?

The BPA’s role is to recover runs, not to bring about abundant runs. And I think that's an important difference that people have to recognize. The BPA’s role is to get fish off the Endangered Species list. What Idahoans are concerned about is creating abundant fish runs. That's a disparity that I don't think BPA is trying to achieve. So I don't think we should hang all of that responsibility on the BPA.

What do farmers feel about the Simpson proposal?

When he came out with his proposal, he had said, if this hurts Idaho agriculture, I will back off this idea. Well, since then, the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Idaho Water Users, Idaho grain producers, the governor, a joint Memorial by our Idaho legislature – they’ve all come out in opposition to this concept. But I don't see Congressman Simpson backing off of this. He's kind of doubling down if anything.

What’s the view in the Lewiston area?

I would say that, generally within the Lewis Clark valley, and this is my opinion, I would say that 85 to 90% of the people would be opposed to taking out the lower Snake River dams.

I would compare this to saying, let's go to Coeur d’Alene and say we're going to drain the lake; or McCall, we're going to drain the lake; or let's get rid of the Boise River. We are fortunate to live on a lake environment here that we've had for 50 years now. Just the idea that you're going to take out the major transportation corridor that our economy is based on, and all of our recreational benefits that we have, the people here are concerned about that type of a proposal.

If the dams don’t come out, what other recovery measures would make a difference?

There are recovery measures that I believe would make a huge impact in bringing back abundant fish runs. Some of those measures are outlined with Governor Little's salmon work group. I was part of that collaboration process and I’m proud of what that group came up with.

Reducing harvest. And when I say reduce harvest, I’m not saying we're going to reduce tribal harvest. Idaho fish are early returners. So they're some of the first to come up the Columbia-Snake River system. Harvest levels are established by what are predicted to be returns that year.

Idaho's fish are kind of first in line. And then, they discover we're not getting the returns we thought we were going to get. So they lower the harvest quotas. Well, by then, Idaho's fish have already been hammered because they were the first ones in.

So we need to go back and take a look at that and find ways not to have Idaho's fish taken out during harvest.

Also looking at predation, when you've got sea lions and seals taking 40% of returning adults, I mean, that's unacceptable. Avian predation -- smolts going down as much as 30% of smolts going out to the ocean. Dam breaching should be the last thing that we implement.

I believe we need to back off the emotion in this and look at the science. Let the science drive what we're going to do to bring back our runs. And I believe the concept right now of just taking out these dams, it's just an emotionally charged issue. It's something that we can point to and say, by God, this is going to fix everything, when it's not.

Lynda Mapes

Lynda Mapes

Lynda Mapes is the environmental reporter for the Seattle Times newspaper, specializing in coverage of Indian tribes, nature, and the environment. Previous to that, she worked for the Spokesman Review in Spokane, where she was awarded the Gerald Loeb award for a series on salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia Basin. She was a panelist at the Andrus Center gathering in 2021 to discuss salmon recovery.

Outdoor Idaho conducted this interview with Mapes in the summer of 2021. What follows are excerpts from that interview.


What has changed in the story about salmon recovery?

The thing that strikes me as a reporter covering this all this time is how little of it has really changed. I mean, that's not to say that nobody's doing anything. I mean, what is it? $17 billion have been spent on habitat fixes and hatchery operations and a lot of changes to the dams. 

But the fact is these fish are still headed to extinction and now, so are the orcas. 

All of a sudden onto the scene comes somebody named Mike Simpson. I’d never heard of Mike Simpson. I had to keep looking up his name. Is it Tom? Is it Pete? What is it? Some one-syllable name. Who is he? Mike Simpson, Republican out of Idaho. Whoever would have thunk it!

And I got a call from him and he said he had this proposal, which was to really face the idea of dam removal instead of continually not facing the idea of dam removal; and replace the benefits of the dams through this vast infrastructure proposal that was expected out of the Biden administration. 

I thought, well, this sounds interesting; this sounds different. And so I started covering this story and the idea hasn't died. It hasn't just fallen off the table. And in fact, it seems to be picking up steam in a rather unexpected way. It's really been embraced by the Tribes, from interior Columbia basin, all the way to Puget Sound, Western Montana and Northern California and Southeast Alaska. All these tribes are coming together and embracing, as salmon people, change.

Is this because there's a big dollar amount attached to it?

I'm absolutely certain that this is an historic moment for this question. And the reason for that is the kind of change that's being talked about -- taking out the dams -- is a profound change in many, many important ways.

And to actually make people whole would take a lot of money, a lot of money. For the Northwest delegation to try to scratch together a proposal for that much money -- just on their own -- would be very, very hard. But to tuck it in some multi-trillion dollar national infrastructure bill is a very different proposition. And that's what Congressman Simpson saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And that's why he's pushing this now.

It's about infrastructure; it's about ports; it's about railroad lines. It's about all these different ways of doing things here in the Northwest. So it would have to be accommodated if people were to accept dam removal; and irrigators would need a complete reconfiguration of massive pumping stations and intakes. You need to replace the power. You need to modernize the grid. A lot of these things, by the way, need to be done anyway. And so Mike Simpson has kind of walked on the stage and said, 'Well, I'll do it.' I mean, he's actually been very modest saying, you know, you tell me a better way if you don't like my way; but you know, let's grab this opportunity as a region.

And instead of having some judge tell us what to do, figure out a way forward ourselves. And this is a message that's definitely being picked up by some sectors. I mean, I was visiting with irrigators in the Ice Harbor pool, off the Snake River. And they're growing crops that go around the world. And so these irrigators are in a very special place, growing beautiful food.

They've come to the position that we don't like dam removal any more than anybody else; but there's no question in our minds that change is coming, and we don't want to be left holding the bag. And so the Simpson proposal to them is a practical tool to accommodate what they're absolutely certain is going to come, which is change on the Snake River.

Simpson's proposal to some people might seem just like crazy talk, crazy town. But to other people, whether you're an irrigator who needs the water, or you're an indigenous culture, that's been there for 10,000 years and going to be there forever. These are the people who are really embracing the Simpson proposal, because they see the inevitability of change. And this is a way to accommodate that with enough money on the table to make it work for people.

Many people we've talked with say the fish are going extinct. What do you think?

The thing I always love about salmon as a reporter covering salmon is you can count them. You know, this isn't a subjective proposition. Let's face it. If you look at the numbers, these fish are headed to the X axis. I mean, there's just no question. And every year it gets worse; and you add climate change to the mix, warming sea surface temperatures, especially the fish headed to the Snake basin; these are the fish that are most at risk.

I've been covering these salmon for a very long time and every year it seems to get worse. For everyone paying attention to it, you have this confluence of circumstances. I mean, look at the heat wave we just went through. The sea is warming. And these fish are cold water animals, and they are disappearing. And there's just no question to the scientists who've studied these fish.

Especially these Idaho salmon. Why? Because they're the ones that have to make it all the way back to these tributaries of Idaho. I think there's a real sense among the people who follow this, that this is the last shot in a couple of ways. Number one, the fish are at the brink. Number two, climate change is coming on like a freight train and number three, there's this once in a lifetime chance with this Simpson proposal to get the money out of a federal infrastructure bill, to try to do something about changing the infrastructure of the Northwest to accommodate salmon and people and power and irrigation and transportation in a different way. The fish need a river. We have other choices, but they need a river.

And what about the Northwest delegation? Do they want this Simpson proposal?

I don't know if it's because he's a Republican from Idaho and they want their own proposal out of Washington. All four dams are in Washington. Most of the largest customers for Bonneville's power that come from those dams and others on the Columbia are in Washington. Most of the interests are in Washington. And so I guess it's not surprising that they would want a Washington proposal. And it's not like this is a new problem. And so I think when governor Inslee and the two U.S. senators have come back with saying, well, dam removal is still on the table; we just don't want this proposal, and we're going to go back to this collaborative process. I think there was sort of a regional eye-roll or groan -- the idea of going back to yet another table of stakeholders when we've had so many of those processes - fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, depends on how you count it - it's just kind of a sense of exhaustion.

And very interestingly, the tribes from all over the region have come together for an Orca salmon summit in governor Inslee's backyard to push the question. So this is far from over. How it comes out at this point. I really couldn't guess.

But I would have to say that in all the years that I've been covering this, I've never seen it quite like this in terms of the amount of interest, the intensity of the passion and the sense from some of the user groups that have been long using the status quo. They see change coming; they see that it's really kind of being a mature debate. At this point, they've been through so many court decisions. I think there's a sense in the region that it's time to call the question.

We were at the Elwha River. It's potentially a long-term success story. Can you compare it to the Idaho salmon?

To me, and to most of the scientists who have watched this, the lesson of the Elwha is that nature responds, that if you restore the natural processes that support salmon -- cold, clean flowing water -- you're going to have salmon. I mean, life finds a way.

Nature responded more quickly, more dramatically, in more ways than anyone ever expected. And so here we are, it's not even 10 years and we've got 8,000 chinook salmon adults coming back to the Elwha River. We have this silvery cascade of steelhead; these were once trout. Now there are steelhead. You've got even songbirds bigger in body size and having double clutches. Why is that? Because they have more food. And so it's a true watershed scale recovery all the way from the mountains to the sea. There are people crabbing off the Elwha River today. You have Orca whales coming in and eating the chinook salmon that are coming back to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

So this is dramatic change being seen throughout the web of life. The one thing that you can absolutely count on is nature and salmon. I mean, look, this is not some crybaby species. These animals have radiated since the Pleistocene into every single possible usable habitat. And you can be absolutely sure that if you provide habitat for them, they will utilize it. Period. It's biology.

What's your take on power generation with the dams?

We're in the middle of an absolute revolution in terms of how power is generated and how it's transmitted. I mean, the amount of solar generation that's coming out of California now is astonishing. And the next thing that's coming is a revolution in battery storage. And once you get utility grade battery storage, that changes everything. In 10 years it's going to be a completely different picture.

And I think what Congressman Simpson is trying to do is position the Northwest for that future, knowing that it's coming anyway. Grab the money that potentially is going to be on the table to modernize the grid, work on battery storage technology, utilize the very real capacities that we have here in the Northwest, through the Pacific Northwest national labs, through the universities to get ahead of this thing, own it, grab it. This is one of the things we're really good at here in the Northwest is technological innovation. And he's trying to grab the money to make that happen for changes that are coming anyway.

What is the role of the Tribes in all this?

Shannon Wheeler was chairman of the Nez Perce tribe, and now he's the vice chair. He is a direct blood descendant of Chief Joseph; and his people signed a treaty with the United States in 1855 that guaranteed a life. And in return, they ceded millions of acres. And at the time the promise was actually for a much larger reservation, which was through various acts of theft and treachery reduced to a very small reservation today. Shannon Wheeler carries that history and he also carries the hopes for a future that include continued cultural survival for his people.

This is a matter of human rights. It's a matter of environmental justice of the first order. This isn't about entertainment, Gee, it would be fun to go fishing. This isn't about some kind of a random wish. This is a solemn promise made by the U S government in return for millions of acres of land that provided the wealth that we enjoy today. And it's built on the backs of the fish and the ancient first wealth of this place.

And so Shannon Wheeler comes into this debate, carrying the weight of history and carrying the promise made to his people. And he makes this simple point, which is, it's not a balanced picture today that the Columbia basin has been overdeveloped for hydro-power and other industrial uses and what he, on behalf of the Nez Perce people, and what many of the tribes are seeking and demanding, is a rebalancing to come more in a direction that can sustain wild salmon and all of the wildlife and other beings that depend on salmon.

This is not a new statement, but it's being made with new force and it's being made with new force partly because these salmon are in such trouble, and it's not as though we've got another 20 years to talk about it.

Why should people care, especially young people who have no real connection with salmon anymore?

Well, you know, that's really the central question for the Northwest, isn't it? The Northwest is a place defined by its outdoors. You can work anywhere, but in the Northwest, this is a place that for a lot of people is defined by the outdoors and the wildlife and the fish that are here and the experiences that go with them. And so the question to me is whether people actually will care. Will they care enough? And will there be the political motivation behind that to keep this quality of life? And what makes this the Northwest, or will we just become a little bit more like everywhere else?

Where does the Endangered Species Act fit into the salmon question?

At a certain point the law and the Endangered Species Act says that these animals must be protected and they are to survive. And not only to survive, they're supposed to be recovered. Whether you care or not, at a certain point, you gotta follow the law. And this is what the judge has been saying -- or a series of judges have been saying -- now for 20 years. I mean, these animals are protected under the Endangered Species Act. And that doesn't mean only if it's convenient, or only if it doesn't cost you any money, or only if you feel like it.

Isn't part of the deal with the Simpson proposal that people can't sue?

Look, this is a bargain. And in bargains, people give something up in order to get something. And one of the things that's been offered on the table on the Simpson proposal is some degree of protection from the endless litigation that's been driving everybody crazy. And so, you know, it makes perfect sense that some version of that is on the table. It is very interesting to see the opposition that came from the environmental community. But, others who have been trying to make a change for these fish for a very long time are not resisting some kind of protection against further litigation. And I think it's because there's an understanding that in any bargain you have to give something up. No one party gets to have everything.

Why do you think that the folks in Lewiston just say No to this proposal?

I'm not sure they do say No. I think it depends on who you talk to. I mean, if you walk main street Lewiston, this is a suffering town. If you look at growth in Idaho, the growth isn't happening in a place like Lewiston; it's happening elsewhere.

Port of Lewiston

Look at the port of Lewiston. It hasn't developed the way people hoped. I mean, most commerce today is moving not to the port of Lewiston via water, but on double stack railroad cars, straight to Chicago or, for that matter, even on roads. I mean, commerce just is continuing to develop differently.

Do you find it odd that the people who are responsible for salmon recovery seem to be the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration, the same people who may not have it in their best interests to be saying let's tear down the dams?

You put your finger on it, the essential awkwardness of the way this thing has been set up from the beginning. And the Simpson proposal seeks to change that. You would take the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells kilowatts, out of the business of managing salmon recovery and give it to the states and the tribes and the fish and wildlife people throughout the Northwest. There's an essential sort of common sense about that. That's one of the more creative aspects of taking a new look at how we're doing things for the next 50 years, for the next 100 years.

Is there something in the Simpson proposal that you think should or should not be there?

I don't think the complaint right now is about anything in particular in the Simpson proposal. I think it's more our general resistance to change. This is the way it has to be; this is the way it's been; this is the way we want it. We don't want to make a change.

What's interesting to me is the growing body of people who are benefiting from the status quo, who are saying, they see change coming anyway from a federal courtroom. It's judgment day, and that they would be better off if they can shape that change themselves for the region, for the future, rather than let it be.

What do you mean that we're all salmon people?

So people in the Northwest first, last, always, across all kinds of geography, all kinds of differences, are salmon people. They're outdoor people. They believe in an outdoor ethic and they want to pass that on to the next generation. A lot of us live here because of the fish and wildlife that are here, because of those outdoor opportunities. You might not call yourself an environmentalist, but you'd probably call yourself an outdoor person. It's very interesting.

When you talk to Mike Simpson, he corrected me curtly, savagely, instantly when I asked him if he was an environmentalist. 'No, don't call me that. I'm from an outdoor tradition. I'm from the tradition of riding horses along the river with my father.'

It's that belief in something bigger than just yourself and your day job, that life is about more than that. And that a good life is certainly about more than that. And that's what unites somebody like the bow tie wearing urban easterner, Earl Blumenauer with Mike Simpson. They're salmon people.

And I think that's the magic of what you see unfolding in this moment. People from all walks of life, from every corner of the Northwest asking themselves, well, isn't this the moment? Isn't this the time? There's going to be a trillion dollars on the table. Don't we want to think about grabbing some of that to work on this problem that's been driving us crazy for twenty-five years? It's not necessarily because they're dying to see dams come out.

There's something even bigger that they want, that they see for themselves. And it's not like you're taking out all the dams by any means. And that's one of the promises of the Simpson proposal, but it stops there. That's an important guarantee for people who see the value of this hydro-power system.

But also baked into this idea is that there's something more that we also want to keep for ourselves, for the next generation. Not only hydro-power and kilowatts and this beautiful prosperity that we're so lucky to enjoy here; but another definition of prosperity, which is this quality of life.

Salmon are almost a placeholder, kind of like the spotted owl was really about big trees and ancient forests. This is very similar. The idea that a salmon stands for a functioning native Northwest ecology, the place that a lot of us mean when we can't wait to show off this place to our out-of-town relatives.

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