Salmon Salvation

Will a new political order be enough to finally bring the dams down?

  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine
 

Scott Van Bergen settled onto a bench at the back of U.S. District Judge James Redden's Portland courtroom on a Friday morning in March and waited for the ninth -- or perhaps the 29th -- round of Pacific Northwest salmon vs. the dams to begin. His high school zoology class had just studied endangered species, and his teacher offered him the opportunity to see where a significant part of the effort to save imperiled creatures takes place -- the federal courts.

Van Bergen is a bright Oregon native who aspires to become a marine biologist. He hopes "there will be a movement to bring the river back to where it was naturally," and that healthy runs of wild salmon and steelhead will swim the Columbia and Snake rivers by the time he gets his college degree.   

Can the Pacific Northwest -- indeed the nation -- fulfill Van Bergen's dream of wild salmon recovery? For the first time in decades, the answer may be yes. Many biologists have long been clear about the best way to achieve it: Remove four dams on the Lower Snake River so the fish can reach millions of acres of pristine habitat in central Idaho and northeast Oregon.

For nearly 20 years, however, the powerful federal agencies now appearing before Redden -- including the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the region's hydropower, and the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, which run some of the region's 200 major dams -- have strenuously avoided dam removal. They've spent $8 billion on almost every conceivable alternative with little consequent improvement in the fortunes of wild fish. And they've cultivated allies among inland ports, utilities, the barging industry, the vanishing aluminum industry and politicians, including Washington state's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray.

Some of those formidable obstacles to dam removal remain, but there are signs that the balance is tipping. President Barack Obama appears dedicated to science and transparency; a well-respected fisheries scientist is now in charge of a key federal agency; and new Northwestern politicians have signaled their willingness to help solve the salmon crisis. Some eastern Washington farmers and other dam beneficiaries appear willing to contemplate a future without the four Snake dams, and renewables in the region already produce as much electricity as these dams provide. A ban on commercial salmon fishing along the Oregon and California coasts for the second consecutive year will cost fishing communities hundreds of millions of dollars, adding urgency to salmon restoration. Most of all, Judge Redden is determined to make government agencies finally follow the Endangered Species Act.

Throughout the Columbia Basin, there is "more interest than ever in working to recover these fish," says Michael Carrier, natural resources policy director for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...