Sep. 27, 2023
By Lynda V. Mapes
President Biden on Wednesday called for abundant and healthy salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin, in a move long-awaited by conservationists and tribes around the region.
The presidential memorandum directs all federal agencies to use their existing authorities and resources to assess whatever more may be needed to restore wild fish populations in the basin, which spans six states, including Washington and Idaho, to help ensure that the U.S. upholds its treaty and trust responsibilities to tribes.
The order comes as negotiations are nearing an Oct. 31 deadline between the federal government and tribes on operations of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The fight over protections for salmon is one of the longest running environmental disputes in the region.
A stay of litigation over operations of the dams will expire at the end of next month.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Shannon Wheeler, chairperson of the Nez Perce tribe, which is a party to the litigation and has long sought removal of dams on the Lower Snake to rebuild salmon runs. “He is saying he is going to honor treaty rights and salmon recovery. He is stepping up to the plate and saying we are going to do this, it is what needs to be done.”
In the order Biden acknowledged that since the signing of treaties with tribes in the region in 1855, dam construction, overfishing and population growth have changed the ecosystem of the basin and severely depleted wild fish populations. That has in turn substantially harmed the tribes’ ability to exercise their rights to fish in the Columbia and Snake, reserved when they ceded millions of acres of their lands in treaties with the federal government.
“The Presidential Memorandum announced today supports tribally led conservation efforts and helps address injustices of the past,” noted a fact sheet from the federal Office of Environmental Quality.
The order builds on prior statements and commitments from the Biden administration to restore wild salmon and other native fish to the Columbia Basin. While the words “dam removal” does not appear in the document, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in its most recent scientific report on the basin found dam removal on the Lower Snake River, among other actions, would be essential to restore healthy salmon runs to the river.
The order also calls for pursuing solutions that restore fish populations while delivering affordable and reliable clean energy, and supporting the local agriculture economy. Agencies are on notice to review their actions and budgets to achieve those goals and were given a deadline of up to 220 days.
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, which represents river users, was unimpressed by the announcement. “I am a polite person; I am not here to rain on anyone’s parade,” Miller said. “But does the memorandum specify what to do if some of these goals are conflicting?”
Its unclear how the tension between dam removal and other goals of the order can work out practically, Miller said. He noted that order stops short of calling for dam removal, adding, “It’s a nice announcement but I don’t know that it changes anything from where we were 24 hours ago from where we were in the debate.”
The Columbia and Snake were once among the mightiest salmon producers in the world. But the combined effects of habitat destruction, overfishing and climate change are overwhelming the abilities of one of the most adaptive and powerful species on earth, which is able to overcome even the effects of volcanic eruptions and survive.
At the time of treaty signing, there were up to 10 million salmon a year returning to the Columbia and Snake. Today, even in a relatively good year returns are a fraction of that, and some tributaries in the interior Columbia Basin see only a few dozen salmon come home.
“It is time,” Biden stated in the order, “for a sustained national effort to restore healthy and abundant native fish populations in the Basin.”