Comment: Salmon, orca can’t survive on talk and promises

Time is fleeting to save Northwest species, and there’s a plan available that would restore habitat.

By Justin Hayes / For The Herald

Will Northwest leaders take action or fail our salmon and communities once again?

Idaho’s wild salmon are spiraling toward extinction with terrible consequences for both the environment and the people who depend on these fish, none more so than the Northwest’s Native American tribes. Many factors are contributing to dwindling runs of Snake River salmon, but the science is clear. No recovery plan is credible if it does not include removing the four federal dams on the Snake River in Washington state.

Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson has a proposal to breach these four dams and make major investments in communities, energy and transportation infrastructure. This is the first time that a true leader in the Northwest has stepped up with a bold plan that is at the right scale to succeed. But time is running out for other political leaders to step up and take action.

Over the years, there have been countless collaboratives designed to restore salmon populations to abundance. I’ve participated in many of them. In nearly 30 years, and after spending nearly $17 billion, no real progress has been made. In many ways, we’ve regressed. Snake River salmon and steelhead are closer to extinction today than they’ve ever been before.

When folks mention dam breaching, there are assurances that those impacted would be “kept whole.” This is earnest. Talk of removing the dams always includes the recognition that this would have impacts on those who rely on them now. These folks would not be cast aside, but rather the region would work together to support them via new, better ways of doing things. New renewable energy, expanded railroads, and community revitalization would ensure that they would be “kept whole.”

But I’ve learned over the years that there are many who are not whole now. Frankly, it’s offensive to some who have not been whole for generations to see that the region’s priority is protecting the status quo at their expense. Our priority should be to restore salmon and make everyone better off.

There is urgency for salmon, orca and the people of the Northwest. And there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity right now to secure funding to find solutions and fix past injustices. A federal infrastructure investment package being discussed must include significant funding for Northwest salmon and steelhead recovery in line with Rep. Simpson’s proposal.

Simpson’s plan proposes to make all communities whole. This is powerful and important. He is working to break apart the status quo and make everybody in the Northwest better, together.

In a recent statement, Washington state’s U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee, both Democrats, rejected considering Simpson’s plan as part of a planned federal infrastructure package. Their words mirrored Simpson’s: abundant salmon, community investment and honoring promises made to tribes. But instead of action and funding, they proposed more delay and process. Platitudes, but no plan. Bringing to my mind the truth in the statement, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

In a powerful showing of unity, 57 Northwest tribal governments pushed back hard on those who seemingly protect the status quo via delay tactics. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians adopted a resolution powerfully stating that they stand united in their support of saving endangered Northwest salmon and in their belief that the true wealth of the Northwest begins with the health of its rivers, fish and the ecosystem they support. The path forward? Bold actions like those proposed by Simpson and specifically calling out the need to fund these measures right now.

And, clearly frustrated by calls for additional processes that look like efforts to run out the clock, the tribes have called for a “Northwest Tribal Salmon and Orca Summit” with direct participation from the Biden administration. As sovereign nations, tribes have a right to answers and action from the White House.

The urgency around salmon and orca, and the fleeting political moment to find funding and resources to ensure that all communities are made whole, point to the fact that this is the moment. And, if we fail, it will not be because efforts to restore salmon and invest in communities were stopped by opponents, but rather because of the inaction of those who could have acted, but did not.

We stand with the Northwest tribes and Rep. Simpson, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., in calling for action and dedicated funding now to find solutions and fix past injustices. Which side are you on?

It takes political leadership and courage to act. Will lawmakers do more than offer platitudes and yet to be determined future processes that cause further delay? Will they continue to favor the status quo, dooming salmon to extinction, or will they make all communities whole? Will lawmakers throughout the Northwest choose to do the right thing?

Justin Hayes is the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, the largest and oldest statewide conservation organization in Idaho with more than 30,000 supporters, including many in Washington and Oregon.

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