Ron Wyden sat next to Sen. Mark Hatfield at what would become a pivotal hearing on the future of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
It was 1990 and the two sat in a federal building in Portland that is now long gone. Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, was a congressman then.
Before the lawmakers sat the major economic and political powers of the entire Columbia Basin, an area the size of France. There were water attorneys representing Idaho, Oregon and Washington farmers. There were tribal leaders and aluminum company representatives. The Bonneville Power Administration, fishermen, environmentalists, barge company executives, utility officials and biologists were there — all to talk about how they might avoid listing salmon as an endangered species. It was an act that most saw as a threat to the economy of a region that then had about 9 million people. (It’s 13 million now).
Hatfield pressed the players to sit down for a series of talks that became known as the Salmon Summit. A year later, it became clear a listing could not be avoided. The summit laid the groundwork for the restoration efforts that have come in the succeeding 22 years.
Wyden, now a U.S. senator, has not been a major salmon player since.
That might be changing.
Wyden will become the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year when New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman retires. If the Democrats hold the Senate, Wyden will be chairman.
The committee oversees the Bonneville Power Administration and many of the agencies involved in salmon management.
BPA has been the leader of the federal family on salmon matters for the past decade. Its administrator, Steve Wright, brought together Washington, Montana, Idaho and most of the Columbia tribes into what it calls the Columbia Accord to support the federal biological opinion — essentially a salmon management plan — for dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. It was a great accomplishment, but he could not get fishermen, the Nez Perce Tribe, environmental groups and the state of Oregon on board.
Those parties, calling the plan inadequate, continued to sue — and won. In September, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber called for a new alternative approach, bringing to the table the groups that were left out and the people in the communities that will be affected.
Under court order, the federal government has to come up with a new plan that will meet the requirement of the Endangered Species Act by 2014. Kitzhaber’s call is not a surprise or a new position for the only elected official in the Pacific Northwest to go on record calling for breaching the four lower Snake dams to save salmon.
Wyden, who has not said much about the issue for 22 years, quickly joined Kitzhaber.
“Time and time again we’ve seen that good things happen when folks agree to meet face-to-face and tackle the tough issues facing Oregon,” Wyden said in a statement. “I’m glad to see that Gov. Kitzhaber has taken the initiative and announced his support for a roundtable that will bring together tribes, fishermen, farmers, power customers, conservationists and officials from state and local governments to discuss Northwest salmon issues.”
The Obama administration has largely ignored Oregon in the past four years, as the state has called for more action to improve salmon migration conditions. But the White House won’t be able to ignore Wyden, who is on the verge of becoming one of the most powerful people in Washington on energy and environmental issues.
Of course, Obama might not be in the White House next year. Mitt Romney could be deciding who will lead salmon policy in the region, and he might lean heavily on Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Resources Committee, who has not been very collaborative.
Or, people such as Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, who have expressed support for collaborative talks on salmon, might step to the forefront.
Whatever happens, Wyden will be a player.
“This is the kind of collaborative process that the region needs to find a solution to such a thorny issue,” he said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484