WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed a landmark memorandum ordering federal agencies to do their part to restore salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers and honor the U.S. government’s treaty obligations to Northwest tribes.
“It is time for a sustained national effort to restore healthy and abundant native fish populations in the Basin,” Biden said in the document, adding that it is his administration’s policy to work with Congress, tribes, states, local governments and other stakeholders “to pursue effective, creative, and durable solutions” to help salmon, steelhead and other native fish recover.
Coming less than a week after the administration committed $200 million over 20 years to reintroduce salmon above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams as part of a settlement agreement with Upper Columbia tribes, Wednesday’s move was hailed by tribal leaders and environmental groups.
“We commend President Biden for his commitment to salmon recovery and focusing the full power and scope of the federal government on this issue,” Corinne Sams, chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in a statement. “He has sent a clear message throughout the federal government that business as usual is no longer acceptable. Never before has the federal government issued a Presidential Memorandum on salmon. This is historic.”
The directive gives all relevant federal agencies – including the Interior Department, Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and others – 120 days to review their programs affecting native fish. If any of those programs are not consistent with the legal responsibilities the federal government has under treaties it signed with Northwest tribes in 1855, which guaranteed Indigenous people the right to fish in all their “usual and accustomed” places, the agencies must align them with Biden’s stated goal of restoring salmon to abundance.
Chief James Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said in a statement that the tribe is encouraged by Biden’s commitment and plans to hold his administration to its word.
“We have said for years that there are many things the federal agencies can do to help these fish populations but they have flat out ignored us or refused to act,” he said. “Hopefully this marks a change in federal policy for the better, and we will continue pushing for full accountability and recovery.”
The Nez Perce Tribe, in a statement, commended the president’s pledge to respect the 1855 treaties, in which the Nez Perce and other tribes ceded some 60,000 square miles of what are now Washington, Oregon and Idaho in exchange for hunting and fishing rights.
“By publicly acknowledging that healthy and abundant salmon runs are essential, we know the Biden Administration is prioritizing the needs of the Northwest and working to uphold our Treaty,” the tribe said. “We are relying on these Federal Agencies to take the necessary, urgent actions to restore salmon populations in the Columbia Basin. We are committed to working with the Biden Administration in partnership as we move forward.”
Biden’s memorandum directs the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget to develop an “intergovernmental partnership” between the federal government, the Columbia Basin tribes and the states of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana.
Biden’s move drew mixed reactions from Congress, where the region’s lawmakers largely agree on efforts to help salmon recover but have clashed – not necessarily along party lines – over proposals to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., welcomed the memorandum and pledged to use her position as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee to continue investing in salmon recovery.
“I’m really glad President Biden and his administration are taking salmon recovery and Tribal treaty rights seriously and working from every angle to restore fish populations in the Columbia River Basin, while meeting the region’s resiliency needs,” Murray said in a statement. “Salmon are absolutely essential for our environment, our economy, and Pacific Northwest Tribes–and ensuring we are making real federal investments in salmon recovery has long been a top priority for me.”
Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Central Washington Republican and a vocal opponent of dam breaching, accused the Biden administration of using the announcement as a smokescreen “to give the perception that residents and stakeholders are being heard” while planning to breach the dams. The administration has so far avoided taking a public stance on the deeply contentious issue.
“While there may not be explicit recommendations to breach the Lower Snake River Dams in this memorandum, that is the goal of this Administration,” Newhouse said in a statement. “This announcement is bureaucracy at its worst and the fact remains that these dams are vital to our economy, our efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and the ability to send our commodities overseas.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican who also opposes removing the dams, expressed measured optimism about Biden’s order.
“While I’m pleased to see the Biden administration finally acknowledge the irreplaceable benefits the Columbia-Snake River System provides to Eastern Washington and the entire Pacific Northwest, they cannot continue to ignore the science and facts,” she said in a statement, pointing to recent improvements in certain salmon runs. “Our mitigation efforts are leading to positive results that we can – and will – build on if this administration is willing to work together to achieve measurable and defined shared goals.”
Biden nodded to the benefits dams provide – in the form of hydropower, irrigation and barge transportation – committing to “secure a clean and resilient energy future for the region” and “support local agriculture and its role in food security domestically and globally.” At the same time, he pledged to invest in the communities that depend on the dams “to enhance resilience to changes” in the dams’ operation, which suggests support for a long-term plan proposed by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, to make dam removal viable.
Along with Biden’s memorandum, the Interior Department announced $3.6 million in new funding for tribal fish hatcheries in the region. That adds to hundreds of millions in previously announced funding for hatcheries, removing culverts and other barriers to fish migration, habitat cleanup and more.
Todd Myers, environmental director at the Washington Policy Center, a think tank that opposes dam removal, said “there’s a lot to like” about all of those investments, although he wants to see lower overall federal spending to reduce the nation’s budget deficit.
Myers said he hopes the 120-day review process will produce recommendations such as culling the seals and sea lions that feast on salmon and whose numbers have exploded in recent decades, partly as a result of legislation Congress passed in 1972. On the other hand, he worries the review could result in the administration endorsing dam breaching.
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, an association of public and cooperative power utilities that opposes dam breaching, called Wednesday’s announcement “bittersweet.”
“Northwest RiverPartners applauds the Biden Administration for going on record as recognizing the unique and essential role the region’s hydroelectric dams, including the Lower Snake River Dams, play in helping us meet our clean energy, climate, economic, and salmon recovery objectives,” Miller said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Memorandum released today builds on and extends a flawed process that has denied affected stakeholders and the public a meaningful role.”
Conservation and fishing groups, which largely support dam breaching as the centerpiece of a broader range of actions to help salmon recover, welcomed Biden’s declaration while emphasizing that it didn’t meet all their demands.
“With this directive, the President is sending a clear message to the Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and other relevant agencies and leaders within the federal government that business-as-usual is no longer acceptable,” Tanya Riordan, policy and advocacy director of Washington-basd Save Our wild Salmon, said in a statement.
Mitch Cutter, salmon and steelhead conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League, said in a statement, “We applaud President Biden and his Administration for saying the right things, now it’s time to do the right things.”
A coalition of environmental groups engaged in ongoing litigation with the federal government over salmon in the Columbia Basin applauded the announcement while making clear that it didn’t fully resolve the issues in the long-running legal fight.
“We’re heartened by the commitment the Biden Administration is demonstrating in this Memorandum to honor obligations to Tribal Nations and to restore Columbia River salmon to a healthy abundance,” Amanda Goodin, an attorney at Earthjustice involved in the litigation, said in a statement. “Now we need to finish the job. NOAA Fisheries has already concluded that the best and only certain way to recover Snake River salmon to a healthy abundance is to breach the four Lower Snake River dams.”
In August, the coalition and the Biden administration agreed to extend a deadline to reach a settlement in that litigation until the end of October. At least one more major announcement affecting salmon in the Columbia Basin is expected by then.