A grizzly bear is the dominant image of the California state flag because these ferocious beasts once roamed the mountains and valleys of the Golden State, and because they symbolized the territory’s fight for independence from Mexico. But you can’t find a grizzly in all of California today because our most populous state made decisions over time to make life miserable for them.
In Idaho we boast the the city of Salmon, the Salmon River, Salmon National Forest and Redfish Lake — and yet we wonder whether salmon have a physical future in the Gem State, or whether that beautiful wild and spiritual symbol will go the way of the grizzly in California.
Nature has been sending signals about the dwindling Idaho salmon population for decades. We’ve been so busy conducting commerce and providing power throughout the Northwest that we’ve been missing or misdiagnosing the problem. We’ve spent upward of $15 billion in attempts to restore fish numbers to sustainable levels without success — and we likely would have continued to throw money and resources in the wrong direction if not for another signal from a judge that we could not ignore.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ruled in May that all of the federal agencies “go back to the drawing board,” as the Statesman’s Rocky Barker wrote last week, and create a plan to “manage dams, generate power and protect fish.”
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Simon is the third federal judge who, over the span of a generation, has rejected “five consecutive federal plans to manage the Columbia and Snake dams since salmon and steelhead were listed as threatened and endangered,” Barker wrote. In his ruling, Simon defined the plight of the federal Columbia River power system as one that “cries out for a new approach.”
We echo that cry here at the Statesman, as we have for decades. Nearly 20 years ago the Statesman advocated breaching four lower Snake River dams located in Washington state to aid the recovery of the wild salmon, who begin their life in the fresh waters of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, navigate to the salty Pacific, and return to our rivers one to two years later to spawn. Though there are always natural predators we can’t defeat, we can do something about the dams and climate change, which impede and frustrate the salmon’s journey — and which threaten its future in Idaho, a place where cooler waters enhance its unique procreative cycle.
That’s why we call on the members of the Idaho congressional delegation — and particularly Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who knows the issue well and who is endowed with considerable collaborative skills — to engage with colleagues in Oregon and Washington, as well as the long list of federal stakeholders (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration among them) to get to work on that drawing board.
During what is likely to be a five-year process full of complexity and rife with those competing interests of river commerce and delivering power, we have to get it right this time. We have to believe there is a way forward on this long journey. We have to take a lesson from the wild salmon. We have to negotiate and navigate as if our future depended upon it.
Our wild salmon are not something we can sacrifice and be the Idaho we want to be.
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