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
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.