It's Time to Fight for All
Idaho's wild salmon conquer gravity to swim from the Pacific to the Sawtooths. They have withstood -- for thousands of years -- relentless predators, stifling drought and moody oceans.
They will not survive our apathy.
The Endangered Species Act requires us to recover the salmon, bringing these fish back from the whirlpool of extinction.
By federal law, we have no choice.
But the salmon-recovery debate is really about something tougher to define: our values.
Do we value wild salmon enough to battle bureaucratic inertia? To insist on leadership from the people we elect?
To demand recovery, even if it's uncomfortable or inconvenient?
Wild salmon are remarkable. For more than 10,000 years before there even was an Idaho, these fish have been born here and have spawned here.
They are integral. They have provided sustenance, of body and spirit, to Indian tribes. They have thrilled sport anglers, and thus have built a sport fishery worth nearly $90 million to river towns in 2001.
They provide food for bald eagles -- one of our nation's true Endangered Species Act success stories -- and bears and bull trout. In death, their bodies release nutrients that replenish the forest food chain.
Which side are we on? For preservation, challenging as this may be? Or for jettisoning a part of our natural heritage that we consider too expensive or inconvenient to save?
Salmon swim at the confluence of values.
When Idahoans debate salmon, we inevitably come back to the question of breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington. Most scientists say breaching provides Idaho salmon their best, perhaps their only, chance of survival.
Since 1997, The Idaho Statesman has said dam breaching offers the best solution to save Idaho salmon. We have also said breaching is the best way to protect Idaho farmers, ensuring their access to water that might otherwise be used to move young salmon around the dams.
In a values debate, some people will point to the dams' attributes.
The dams create a port in Lewiston that employs 250 people and ships upward of a million tons of wheat and barley a year.
The dams provide hydropower and give boaters and water-skiers a playground in Lewiston. Building dams is consistent with a core Western value -- the idea that water can be moved around in the name of progress.
Others are willing to trade the dams' benefits to protect fishing communities' multimillion-dollar tourist industry.
These rivers have an economic value that increases in time and trumps the dams' value, says Don Reading, a Boise economist whose research is often cited by fish advocates. "They're not making any more of those river reaches."
In a way, U.S. District Judge James Redden had the easy call to make 10 days ago.
He properly rejected the federal government's preposterous notion that the man-made dams were simply part of the natural river system.
That much is obvious; the oldest dam in play in the breaching debate has been in the Snake River for 43 years; the salmon have been there more than 10 millennia. Redden's ruling reopens the breaching debate that the federal government wanted to close.
Time reshapes our perception of the river. With every year, fewer Idahoans recall the teeming salmon runs Reading remembers seeing as a teenager in the 1950s.
With every year, more north-central Idaho residents remember and expect only slackwater reservoirs in Lewiston.
It's sad to think our own state leaders have forgotten as well. The state sided in court with federal agencies that suggested recovering Idaho salmon is optional and merely staving off extinction will suffice.
Does this reflect the will of Idahoans? If your answer is no, speak up now.
Redden has given us another chance to insist on salmon recovery, as the law requires.
Another chapter, 15 years into the Idaho salmon debate.
Another window into our values.
What will we see when we look back someday?
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