Comment: Tulalip gathering signals progress for salmon’s future

Sixteen Northwest Tribes met to celebrate the momentum to restore habitat for salmon and steelhead.

By Kody Osbourne / For The Herald

Often, history unfolds before our eyes before we can fully grasp the moment. Last week may have been that point in time, when 16 Northwest Tribes — across the Northwest states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington — gathered at the Tulalip Resort to unify, elevate and celebrate the growing momentum to redress a foundational injustice.

Over decades, the lower Snake River dams have robbed the Northwest Tribes and the region of our storied salmon and steelhead runs, leaving devastating impacts to the ecosystem and communities that depend on them.

I was honored to attend the tribal summit, Rise Up in Unity, the fifth in a series. It demonstrated beyond a doubt: The time for change has come.

The gathering landed on the heels of a new phase in the long-running litigation to restore the lower Snake River. After decades of leadership by the Nez Perce, Yakama and other Northwest Tribes, we have, at long last, a package of actions and commitments, subject to approval, that could form the basis for a multi-year stay of litigation. It is this litigation that has helped keep extinction of salmon and steelhead at bay in the short term. It has also helped bring parties to the table to work on a comprehensive, long-term solution to restore these native fish to a healthy and harvestable abundance while modernizing the Pacific Northwest’s transportation, energy and agricultural infrastructure.

At this historic moment, the urgency couldn’t be greater. The ecosystem we all depend on has been pushed to the breaking point. We need look no further than a recent toxic algal bloom on the lower Snake River, fueled by warm, stagnant reservoirs behind the four lower Snake River dams. The toxic algal bloom rendered “a roughly 30-mile stretch of the river temporarily hazardous for humans, pets and livestock.” By all measures the algal bloom is unprecedented and it has produced toxins that can lead to liver damage to people and pets, prompting officials to issue health warnings.

A common and deep concern that was shared by many Native elders and other Tribal members at the Tulalip gathering was that salmon would go extinct in their lifetimes. I share their concerns and worries for the next generation of Northwesterners, my own children included.However a sea change is afoot. We have unparalleled resources available to us to replace the services these four expensive and outdated dams provide, which we can secure through Congress. We have built tremendous momentum and at long last, we are moving away from the status quo and in the right direction.

The time has come for the Northwest to realize a future built on an energy mix that is both fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable. Our Northwest leaders — from both parties —including Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, agree. And so does the Biden administration, which has made salmon recovery a government-wide priority. In September, the administration ushered in two momentous agreements: the Upper Columbia Agreement and the recent Presidential Memorandum, which directs federal agencies to take proactive action to restore healthy and abundant salmon populations across the Columbia River Basin. This Presidential Memorandum provides much-needed momentum for the federal government to fulfill its Treaty obligations and ensure that local communities and ecosystems will benefit from healthy and abundant salmon runs once again.

Columbia River salmon are one of our national treasures and we have reached a tremendous milestone. We must let science guide us forward: Restoring a freely flowing lower Snake River is not only essential for protecting its imperiled salmon and steelhead populations, it also represents one of our nation’s very best salmon recovery opportunities today. Lower Snake River dam removal will restore 140 miles of mainstem river habitat in southeast Washington state and re-establish productive access for endangered fish to more than 5,500 miles of pristine, protected, high-elevation upstream habitat in northeast Oregon, central Idaho and southeast Washington state. It will significantly increase survival of salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin by, for example, reducing water temperatures, dam powerhouse encounters, disease, reservoir predation, energy expenditure and out-migration travel time.

We are closer than ever to making the restoration of imperiled salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin a reality. We are closer than at any other time in history. But we still have work to do. With unity and momentum, we are creating a future where abundant energy, salmon — and justice for Northwest Tribes — can coexist.

Kody Osbourne is director of conservation partnerships for Idaho, Oregon and Washington for the National Wildlife Federation.

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