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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: From an unforeseen corner comes a push to return dam-breaching to the discussion

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 14, 2021

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

Redfish Lake is one of the most beautiful places in the Rockies – a classic mountain lake, icy and deep blue, surrounded by the lush green slopes and distant rocky peaks of Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness.

There are many reasons you might go there, but the reason for its name has all but vanished: A sockeye salmon run that would turn the lake a brilliant red every summer when the fish returned from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. It’s a cliché of the lake’s history that it would be so filled with sockeye you could walk across on their backs.

That’s surely not the cliché anymore. An estimated 150,000 salmon once returned annually to spawn in Redfish Lake. Last year, an effort to use hatchery-raised fish to recharge the sockeye run – now marked by a gauntlet of dams – saw just 27 out of 660,000 fish return.

The redfish-free Redfish Lake is only one piece of the vastly complicated series of competing interests, ecological challenges, tribal treaty rights and economic conflicts woven into our region’s history with the Columbia and Snake river dams. But it’s a piece that is very personal for Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho – and anyone else who grew up loving the state’s wild places.

“I would love to see why they call Redfish Lake Redfish Lake,” Simpson said in a speech last year. “I don’t know if we can do that during my lifetime, but we need to do it for future generations.”

On Sunday, Simpson shocked a lot of people by introducing a $34 billion plan to remove four dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and invest in programs to help communities and industries respond to those changes. It is a big, bold proposal, and it puts salmon and dam removal back on the agenda in a dramatic way.

Can it actually make it through Congress? Would it actually work? I wouldn’t hazard even a guess. The issue is so vast, so complicated by competing interests and arguments, so fraught with life-altering consequences for people who rely on the rivers and with cultural and historical importance for Native people, it’s frankly hard to imagine a solution that doesn’t founder somewhere along the way.

But the fact that the plan came from an Idaho Republican, representing a deep red district in eastern Idaho while speaking on reverential terms about the beauty of the salmon and the need to restore the runs – well, it just suggests new realms of possibility for negotiation and compromise.

Simpson is the first elected official to ever suggest removing dams that are still operating, according to the Seattle Times. He intends his proposal as a starting point for discussion, he says, but it includes billions of dollars intended to help industry, agriculture, tribes and coastal communities adjust if the dams are removed.

The announcement of the plan last weekend took a lot of people by surprise, but not anyone who’s been listening to him lately or who has paid attention to his role as Idaho’s conservative conservationist.

Simpson played an important role in helping to win wilderness protection for 276,000 acres in the White Cloud range of central Idaho. This wilderness declaration, made in 2015 by President Obama and later named the Cecil D. Andrus-White Cloud Wilderness, was a continuation and fulfillment of the movement to protect Idaho’s beautiful Sawtooth country that began decades ago with Andrus and many conservationists.

Andrus was the four-term Idaho governor, a titan of the state’s political history, a devoted conservationist and a Democrat. His was the legacy that Simpson joined in that wilderness battle.

In April 2019, Simpson was the keynote speaker at a conference on salmon energy, agriculture and community at Boise State University’s Andrus Center for Public Policy. The speech received some coverage at the time, because Simpson began hinting pretty strongly that dam removal might be on his mind.

Simpson raised a variety of reasons that the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates the dams, is in trouble. He said hydropower was no longer the consistently cheapest energy on the market, in large part because of spending mandated to try to bring back salmon and deal with a whole host of other issues.

It’s governed by the Northwest Power Planning Act of 1980s, and subject of environmental litigation that has stretched on for decades.

As it is, he said, ratepayers contribute so much to support fish and wildlife, subsidize smaller power brokers, pay for flood control, give money to states and tribes to prevent further legal action, among other expenses, that our vaunted inexpensive power is actually pretty expensive, he said.

“So I’ve been asking myself, me and my staff, is it time for a Northwest Power Planning Act. 2.0?” he said.

Without that, he said, it’s likely that someone else – a judge, perhaps, enforcing a court order emerging from somewhere in the massive, ongoing tangle of litigation wrapped up in the dams and salmon runs – would create a plan and impose it.

“Either we can do it or it will be done for us. Someone else will write it and impose it upon us,” he said. “I think the challenges facing the BPA also create the opportunity for us to solve the salmon crisis. They are interwoven. So perhaps this challenging time gives us the opportunity to both address the power challenges that we face, and also the salmon crisis.”

In the speech, which I watched last week online, you can see Simpson fashioning the framework of an appeal to someone who might not give a rip about fish runs – or to the person who might fear for their livelihood if the dams were removed, like a Palouse wheat farmer.

And his proposal includes billions and billions of dollars to try and address communities that would be affected by dam removal. Whether they would work, or whether he can build support, is another question entirely.

What’s remarkable about his appeal, however, is not just that he is making fiscal or practical arguments in an attempt to sway breaching opponents. It’s the fact that he is marrying that to an appreciation for the deep, intrinsic, spiritual value of wild salmon – of wild nature itself – that is not typical for someone from his political corner.

“We don’t have a Columbia River anymore,” he said at BSU. “We have a series of pools, stagnant pools, behind dams.”

He told a story about going to Marsh Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, in 2018 to see the return of salmon, back from the ocean to spawn.

“It was the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one,” he said. “These are the most incredible creatures, I think, that God created. It’s a cycle that God created. We shouldn’t mess with it.”

“We saw one (returning salmon). One. She swam 900 miles after swimming around in the ocean for five years after being flushed through dams and out into the ocean. She swam 900 miles to get back to Marsh Creek. Increased in elevation about one and a quarter miles. All to lay her eggs for the next generation of salmon.

“And you’ve gotta ask yourself, after spending $16 billion on salmon recovery over the last however many years: Is it working?”

Contact the writer at shawnv@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5431

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