Idaho won my heart years ago with its wild beauty, but today it was the people that got my attention. I attended the Annual Andrus Environmental Conference. The topic of the day was Energy, Salmon, Agriculture, and Community: Can We Come Together? and I’ve never seen a conference so packed or an audience so totally rapt.
The Pacific Northwest has been deadlocked over salmon and dams for decades. Something is shifting, and everyone at the conference in Boise felt it.
We are seeing “bits of daylight,” was how Bonneville Power Administrator Elliot Mainzer put it. The day’s panels were packed with people who more traditionally sit across from each other than side-by-side, but an honest effort to find common ground ran strong at every table.
For the first time in a while, I felt new hope for the fish. And, well, for us humans too.
In the 1960s and 1970s a series of large hydroelectric dams were built on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The salmon that travel the river as part of their natural life cycle—swimming out to the ocean as young smolt and returning as adults to spawn—have never recovered. “All of Idaho’s salmon runs are either threatened or endangered” with extinction, lamented Congressman Mike Simpson during his nearly hour-long lunchtime address.
Salmon are the backbone of the Pacific Northwest’s ecological web. The fish are also the cultural foundation of the fishing and tribal communities that live in the Columbia River and Snake River basins. After talking about witnessing a lone salmon return to lay eggs in her native stream, Simpson said from the heart: “These are the most incredible creatures, I think, that God has created.”
As the salmon struggle to survive, the call from the fishing, tribal, and conservation communities to restore the Snake River and retire the four lower Snake River dams grows stronger. A tremendous opportunity to restore access to cool, pristine salmon habitat awaits behind those dams, but “we are running out of time,” cautioned Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited.
The dams play an important role in the energy grid, helping to integrate other renewables, explained Mainzer. If you take out the dams, “power is going to be the easiest part to solve,” warned Roger Gray, CEO of Pacific Northwest Energy Co-op.
Sam White, the Chief Operating Officer of the PNW Farmers Co-op Grain Division spoke about how the dams provide wheat farmers in Idaho and eastern Washington a quick and dependable way—on river barges—to get their soft white wheat to Asia. Irrigators also depend on the large reservoirs for crops from wine to potatoes, said Jeff Gordon of Pasco, Washington.
McCoy Oatman, Vice Chair of the Nez Perce Tribe, reminded everyone that salmon are an important food source for humans as well. He spoke of his young daughters and an obligation to speak for the salmon. Thinking about extinction scares him to death. Oatman invited the audience members to consult the tribe, the indigenous peoples who have lived in harmony with abundant salmon, as we quest together for solutions.
The federal agencies that own and operate the dams have spent more than 16 billion dollars to restore salmon in the region. And still, the salmon struggle. “You have got to ask yourself,” Simpson said, “after spending $16 billion on salmon recovery over the last how many years, is it working?” No.
Many spoke of an earnest desire to work together to find solutions. Merrill Beyeler, a rancher from the Lemhi Valley, told stories of his own unlikely restoration successes, quoted Martin Luther King Jr., and reminded us all that we must advocate for each other and, he said, “do not leave anyone behind.” A commercial fisherman and an Idaho wheat farmer both offered me sincere invitations to come see things from their side of the story.
At the end of his speech, Simpson unveiled his commitment to find a solution to the salmon crisis. He didn't shy away from the Snake River dams conversation either. “You cannot address the salmon issue without addressing dams,” he said. He wanted to know what it would take to make all the stakeholders whole, and he was ready to start talking about outside-the-box solutions. Can this age-old impasse be breached? “It is not unsolvable if good people come together and say we are going to save this animal from extinction,” he concluded.
Everyone stepped up today and demonstrated a new willingness to make personal sacrifice, to put down old biases, and to work together. I found myself softer at the end of the day towards everyone in the conversation, rethinking my own approach and hopeful about new partnerships.
The path forward to achieve plentiful fish, clean power, reliable agriculture, and healthy communities has never felt so close. A diverse group of Idahoans took a big step forward today. Now, will the rest of the Pacific Northwest (and its congressional delegation) follow Idaho's lead and step up to the challenge?