By Eric Barker/Lewiston Tribune
Mar 21, 2023
President Joe Biden pledged today to work with Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington to restore Snake and Columbia river salmon runs.
Biden was speaking at a White House Conservation in Action Summit attended by leaders of the Nez Perce Tribe in which he announced several high-level conservation initiatives including his use of the Antiquities Act to establish national monuments in Nevada and Texas and an ocean preserve near Hawaii.
When talking about salmon and steelhead, the president misspoke and accidently referenced the Colorado instead of the Columbia River.
“And I'm also committed to working with the tribal leaders here, as well as Senator Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell and Representative Mike Simpson to bring healthy and abundant salmon runs back to the Colorado River system,” Biden said.
The president didn’t provide specifics on how he hopes to help recovery of the runs.
Salmon fishing is central to the culture and economy of the tribe. Its 1855 treaty with the U.S. government reserves the right of its members to fish for salmon in “usual and accustomed places." But wild Snake River salmon and steelhead are protected under the Endangered Species Act. For more than two decades the tribe has advocated breaching the four lower Snake River dams that impede the migration of juvenile and adult salmon and steelhead as they move between spawning grounds in Idaho, Washington and Oregon and the Pacific Ocean.
The tribe has also been a key player in a long-running court case pitting it, Oregon and fishing and conservation groups against the federal government over its efforts to balance the needs of the fish with operation of dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.
For more than a year, the parties to that litigation have participated in closed-door mediation in an attempt to forge a durable solution to the problems facing salmon and steelhead. The Biden administration has not backed dam breaching, but under its leadership, the federal government has been more open to the idea that was once ridiculed. Breaching would help the fish but it would end tug-and-barge transportation of crops like wheat between Lewiston and downriver ports and eliminate hydroelectric generation at the dams, complicating the region’s effort to decarbonize its energy system.
Two years ago, Rep. Simpson, of Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District, released a $33.5 billion plan that would breach the dams and invest in affected communities and industries across the Northwest. The concept, that is not legislation, has not gained traction with other members of Congress and some, like Reps. Russ Fulcher of Idaho and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of eastern Washington are bitterly opposed to the idea. But it was endorsed by the Nez Perce and other tribes, who continued to lobby for it.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray spent more than a year studying breaching before saying it would help the fish but is not feasible until services provided by the dams — transportation and hydroelectric power generation — are replaced.
Last year, a draft report from NOAA Fisheries said wild Snake River salmon and steelhead cannot be recovered to harvestable levels without dam breaching.
Biden highlighted several conservation initiatives at the summit, including those aimed at fighting climate change, protecting wildlife migration corridors and modernizing public land management.
“This matters because when we conserve our country's natural gifts, we're not just protecting the livelihoods of people who depend on them, like the family farms, outdoor recreation businesses and rural communities welcoming visitors from all across the country and around the world for that matter. We're protecting the heart and the soul of our national pride. We are protecting pieces of history, telling our story that will be told for generations upon generations to come.”