WASHINGTON — Representatives from Northwest tribes gathered at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday to call on Congress to breach the Lower Snake River dams in an effort to restore salmon runs .
The Salmon Orca Summit, organized by members of the Nez Perce Tribe, Yakama Nation and other tribes, came just two days after the Biden administration inserted itself into the Northwest’s long-running “salmon wars” with the release of two reports.
One report, commissioned by the Department of Energy’s Bonneville Power Administration, concludes that replacing the power generated by the four hydroelectric dams between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities would cost between $11 and $19 billion. The other, a draft report prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts the impact on salmon and steelhead populations of various actions, including removing the earthen portion of one or more dams to restore the flow of the river.
The White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, which since October 2021 has coordinated an effort by multiple federal agencies to analyze the dams and their impact on fish, stopped short of calling for dams to be breached. But Brenda Mallory, the council’s chairwoman, indicated the Biden administration will take a more prominent role in what has largely been a regional debate.
“Business as usual will not restore the health and abundance of Pacific Northwest salmon,” Mallory said in a statement Tuesday. “We need a durable, inclusive, and regionally crafted long-term strategy for the management of the Columbia River Basin.”
Addressing a crowd of more than 100 people outside the Capitol on Thursday, tribal leaders called on Congress to uphold the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla, which granted the Nez Perce the right to fish in their “usual and accustomed places” in exchange for ceding vast swaths of land in Washington, Idaho and Oregon to the U.S. government.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, speaks at a rally outside the U.S. Capitol on July 14, 2022, organized by Northwest tribes in support of breaching the Lower Snake River dams to help restore salmon runs. (Orion Donovan-Smith, The Spokesman-Review)
While federal lawmakers often tout the importance of observing treaty rights, Congress appears unlikely to take steps toward breaching the dams in the near future.
In a nod to that reality, Samuel Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, evoked a speech delivered by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce after he met with members of Congress in 1879.
“I cannot understand why so many chiefs are allowed to talk so many different ways and promise so many different things,” Joseph said in his famous Lincoln Hall speech. “They all say that they are my friends and that I shall have justice. But while all their mouths talk right, I do not understand why nothing is done for my people.”
A notable exception is Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican who represents the eastern half of Idaho and was the only lawmaker at the rally. Simpson became a champion of dam-breaching advocates when he released a plan in February 2021 calling for $33 billion in federal spending to restore the river’s flow and replace the benefits the dams provide in electricity, shipping and irrigation.
“We just got good news from the administration,” Simpson told the crowd. “What they came out and said is, ‘You’re not going to restore the salmon with the dams on the Lower Snake River. … It’s something the tribes have always known. I’m a newcomer to this.
“What we need now is advocacy to keep pushing it and keep pushing it,” Simpson continued. “It’s time that we as a government do what’s right, that we keep these species from going extinct and that we honor the treaty rights that we have made with Native American tribes throughout the country and in the Pacific Northwest.”
While admitting that will be a challenge, Simpson pointed to his recent victory in Idaho’s primary election — over a challenger who criticized his support of dam breaching — as “proof that you can advocate for what’s right” and still win reelection. He is likely to win November’s general election in the deep-red district.
Other Northwest Republicans in the House have formed a unified front in support of the dams, which the region’s agriculture industry relies on. In a joint statement Tuesday, six House Republicans from the Columbia Basin — including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Rep. Russ Fulcher, whose district includes North Idaho — accused the Biden administration of “cherry picking points to justify breaching the Lower Snake River Dams, which will permanently and negatively impact our way of life in the Pacific Northwest.”
Congressional Democrats from the Northwest have been quieter, seeking to balance their stated commitment to environmental justice and respecting treaty rights with the need for the low-carbon electricity the dams generate. After the morning rally, Shannon Wheeler, vice chair of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said he met with aides to Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, but not with the senators themselves.
Tribal leaders said they also planned to meet with Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who took aim at the studies released by the White House in a statement Tuesday.
“In a time of record inflation and soaring energy prices, the Biden administration is endorsing a plan to rip out the Northwest’s clean energy assets while in the same breath asserting climate change is the largest existential threat,” Risch said. “Only Congress — not the President — has the authority to remove these dams. Now more than ever, I remain adamantly opposed to breaching the dams on the Lower Snake River.”
Paulette Jordan, a former Idaho state legislator and member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council who challenged Risch for his Senate seat in 2020, said Biden could do more with his executive authority to advance dam breaching.
“We have no time to waste,” Jordan said. “I’ve seen two reports released from the White House. None of them have said we’re taking action this year or now, not one. When you don’t see any division of the government willing to step forward and do what’s right, that makes it hard for me, because I look back on my elders, my ancestors who have done their part, and here I am today still seeing that their good work is not being acted upon. People have not kept their word.”
The optimism expressed by some speakers was tempered by older leaders, including Nathan Small, the 71-year-old chairman of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Fort Hall Business Council, who was a high school classmate of Simpson.
“If this is going to take another 10 or 15 years, I’m not going to be able to see this, so time is of the essence to get these things done,” Small said. “We are getting close to something really, really happening to bring our fish back, and it’s about dang time.”