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Know the West

Tribal revival


As a kid, I relished stories of America’s pre-settlement wildlife abundance: Vast clouds of passenger pigeons darkening the skies for days at a time, buffalo storming across the Great Plains like massive living tornadoes, and, of course, mighty runs of salmon, so densely packed that you could walk across the writhing, red creeks without soaking your shoes. The Midwestern suburbs I lived in were a shadow of this world — though we did have mighty flocks of starlings (and swarms of mosquitoes) — but when I finally moved out West, my imagination was fired again by the sight of the landscapes I’d dreamed of as a boy. There were even some wild animals left.

In the late 1990s, I convinced High Country News to send me to the Pacific Northwest to cover the fight over the Columbia Basin’s diminished wild salmon runs. There, I finally grasped the salmon’s truly jaw-dropping journey, from mountain streams in Idaho to the Pacific Ocean and back again, and I saw how thoroughly we had reshaped the hydro-system, our dams turning the Columbia and Snake rivers into a series of slackwater reservoirs, deadly to fish.

I also learned about what HCN correspondent Ben Goldfarb describes in this issue as “the West’s most aggravating legal cycle,” in which conservationists regularly butt heads with the powerful agencies and interests that control the Columbia and are legally obligated to “restore” its endangered wild salmon runs. In the late 1990s, salmon activists and scientists began building a solid case that the dams on the Snake River would have to go before true restoration could occur.

Their greatest allies in the fight have been Northwest tribes, who have deep cultural ties to salmon and retain the legal right to harvest them. Surely tribal lawsuits, combined with growing evidence that our current efforts to transport fish around and through dams weren’t working, would win the day. But that has not happened. Instead, as Goldfarb reports, the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity from the dams and funds most of the region’s salmon recovery efforts, cut a deal with all but one of the tribes. The BPA would funnel a huge amount of money into the tribes’ salmon hatcheries and habitat improvement projects if those tribes promised not to challenge the government’s recovery effort, or even to advocate for dam breaching.

Were the 2008 Fish Accords, which expire in 2018, merely a bribe, or are they yielding tangible benefits for both the salmon and the tribes? The nuanced story Goldfarb tells provides no easy answers. It does, however, reveal a lot about the modern relationship that Northwest tribes have with salmon. And reading it, I felt again that sense of wonder about the wild creatures with whom we share the West.