“[T]hese Falls, which have fallen further, which sit dry
and quiet as a graveyard now? These Falls are that place
where ghosts of salmon jump, where ghosts of women mourn
their children who will never find their way back home…”
— Sherman Alexie, from “The Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump”
One of the greatest contrasts for area residents is how the river Spokane is so powerfully sculpted by nature yet so disembodied from its recent past. The Children of the Sun tribe less than 70 years ago made great snatches of Chinook and Coho near where the Maple Street Bridge funnels SUVs and trucks in an endless stream of belching metal.
Sherman Alexie, best known for Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and a member of the Spokane tribe, does more than lament the loss of the salmon runs. He is confrontational and “in the face” of corporate and political forces that deem salmon as “a fish of diminishing value.”
For Alexie and Spokane tribal elder Pauline Flett, and for groups like Salmon for All and Save Our Wild Salmon, it’s a no-brainer to bring back the clear waters and an abundance of native fish to a river like the Spokane and a river system like the Columbia/Snake.
For some Northwest salmon people, such as Grey Owl, a Southern Cheyenne artist and cultural guide living on the Nez Perce reservation, river and subsequent fish contamination means early, hard deaths.
“Even supposing that we exclude some nefarious government plot to study them,” Grey Owl said, “it is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that the government was not as careful in the ‘60s about what Hanford released, including radioactive water used to cool the reaction, into the Columbia. Just in our small little Native community here, all salmon people, there is a high incidence of cancers, tumors, and unexplained cysts.”
For salmon and salmon people — including various Inland West and Pacific Coast tribes and non-tribal commercial and recreational fishermen — they recognize three pivotal river systems that incubate and release salmon into the Pacific for the world to enjoy. The Sacramento, Yukon and Columbia/Snake systems are the genetic conveyor belts of wild salmon. For many, these river systems must be unleashed, free of mining and agricultural bleed-offs, and set in riparian and forest cover where clear-cutting is a long-vanished 1900s technology.
More than 45 local, regional and state organizations make up a coalition supporting breaching four dams on the lower Snake River: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite.
Groups like Friends of the Earth, Trout Unlimited, Northwest Sportfishing Industries Association, American Rivers, NW Energy Coalition, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Washington Trollers Association make up a cadre of lobbying, informational and advocacy groups poised to support bringing down the four dams.
Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS), as part of the coalition’s main group pushing dam removal, focuses specifically on restoring salmon in the Snake River. Kell McAboy, three years in the trenches as Eastern Washington organizer for SOS in Spokane, has been a vocal public protector of the Snake River and its salmon.
“When thinking about removing the four dams in the lower Snake River, not only is it the best bet for the salmon, it’s the best bet for people. There are more than 200 dams in the Columbia Basin, making it the most constipated watershed on earth.”
The main issues McAboy and others in the coalition see as their stumbling blocks are transportation, farmers and the mythology of having an inland seaport at Lewiston, 900 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean.
“The issue comes down to transportation,” McAboy says. She noted that rail and eighteen-wheeler transportation links can be revitalized in order to move the wheat and other goods the current barges on the dammed Snake provide.
As part of her duties with SOS, McAboy has organized tours of the Snake River, the four dams and free-flowing rivers like the Clearwater and Salmon. Her organization and the coalition at large are connected to a non-profit group, LightHawk, which has planes and pilots at the ready to take people into the air so they might see the environmental impact of dammed rivers from aloft.
“From the air, the people get a unique perspective of how a free-flowing river and the impounded river look like,” McAboy said.
It’s clear when one starts looking at this “to breach or not to breach” debate that there is a definite dichotomy between east and west Washington. Most people for breaching have zip codes set west of the Cascades, while those opposed are from the Inland Northwest.
One strategy Jill Wasberg from SOS in Seattle sees as a way to put flesh and bone on those everyday people who have lost livelihoods and cultural connections because of the death of the natural, large salmon runs, is to foster a sense of story — a narrative lynchpin so the pro-dam breaching stakeholders in this “Save Our Dams” versus “Save Our Salmon” gain voice.
She and others in SOS — with offices in Portland, Seattle, Washington D.C. and Spokane — are interviewing people for a video and publication venture called “The Stories Project.” Wasberg hopes to capture the history, cultural identity and economic value.
Bill Kelley, professor in Eastern Washington University’s Urban and Regional Planning Program, promotes an on-going dialogue “about what constitutes community.” Kelley stresses that a definition of ecology — including river and salmon recovery — should include a “place for humans [and] their needs and desires in balance with ecological capacities.”
“I worry that when our passionate advocacy is too shrill and when our science and comprehensive planning, with all of its complexity, can’t be illustrated in simple and compelling and human terms,” Kelley said, “that we turn off our citizens when we most need to be turning them on.”
As EWU professor, Kelley coordinates undergraduate and graduate students in projects with various communities and constituencies to help them decide how their rural and undeveloped land and their urban space can give them a sense of stewardship and self-determination.
More than 85 rapids and falls will reappear on the Snake River if the dams are removed, McAboy notes. This will result in thrusting volumes of water and no more fattened impounded pools where salmon face nigh nitrogen loads, bacteria and viruses, longer journeys back to the Pacific estuaries, and unnaturally warm waters. Cold, fast-flowing water will push salmon smolt out to sea as nature designed.
Many biologists see breaching and habitat recovery as the only credible salvation to regenerating wild salmon stocks to numbers where sustainability occurs. If breaching is finally approved as the best, most prudent and eventually the most economically sane solution, the four main barriers will be gone, allowing 140 miles of the main stem of the Snake to open up.
This in turn will free hundreds of miles of tributaries in Eastern Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming for salmon to return full of sperm and roe to breed hundreds of millions of fry that will live and die, leaving millions to transmogrify into river-loving fry and estuary-seeking smolt. Most salmon return to and live in oceans, either close to shore or thousands of miles out to sea, for two to seven years before the evolutionary switch clicks on to return to their gravel beds.
Dave Johnson is a passionate fisheries scientist with the Nez Perce tribe who works to refine and harmonize a dozen tribal hatcheries as a way of supplementing the wild salmon that have been cut off since the Snake River dams came on line in the 1960s and ‘70s. For Johnson, his tribe and others have “a right to fish in all those streams.”
There seems to be a card up the sleeve of various Northwest tribes, including the Nez Perce. “The Nez Perce are not just some historical artifact,” said David Cummings, Nez Perce legal counsel. Cummings notes that the courts system is just one of several tools; yet treaties signed 1855 and 1856 with tribes of the Washington Coast, Puget Sound and Columbia River stated that while tribes ceded most of their land (1.34 million acres compared to the current 750,000 for just the Nez Perce tribe, as an example), those treaties gave exclusive rights to fish within their reservations and rights to fish at “all usual and accustomed places . . . in common with citizens.”
For Cummings, the 1974 “Boldt Decision” reaffirming tribal rights to 50 percent of the harvestable fish “destined for tribal usual and accustomed fishing grounds” is sort of a cultural and environmental ace in the hole.
Cummings notes that the treaty carries with it a right to restoration of wildlife, including the riverine ecosystem and water quality.
There is a genetic, dietary, and cultural connection to salmon and sustainable harvests. Johnson is one of more than 200 scientists who advocate breaching the four lower Snake dams.
Pacific Northwest salmon for a million years have struggled to recreate their genes by leaving salt water to go upstream. By the millions, wild Coho, Chinook, sockeye, pink, chum, King and others had returned in their respective fall, summer and spring runs. The wild salmon of the Columbia drove their fasting bodies through scablands, falls, and heat to return to their birthing riffles more than 900 miles inland from the Pacific to Eastern Washington and Oregon and deep into Idaho and Wyoming.
That was before the eight federal dams that are the gauntlet stopping the Inland West’s salmon from spawning.
The parallel struggle of overcoming obstacles — now dams — that anadromous fish and the tribes of the Northwest share is telling.
For 10,000 years, Indian tribes rendezvoused at the lower Columbia River’s Celilo Falls. Traders from as far away as Central America gathered with thousands of others from dozens of tribes.
Fast-forward a few thousand years to the Lewis and Clark Expedition as Clark comments on the hundreds of thousands of salmon they came across: “The multitude of this fish. The water is so clear that they can readily be seen at a depth of 115 or 120 feet. But at this season they float in such quantities down the stream the Indians have only to collect, split and dry them on the scaffolds.”
The Dalles dam in 1956 impounded the river, mucked up the cascades and free-flowing nature of things, and inundated the sacred Celilo Falls.
The four lower Columbia dams have been technologically manipulated to allow for safer passage of salmon running to the spawning beds and to allow the smolts to be flushed more safely to sea. The process for the lower Snake River dams, however, is more daunting and less technologically successful.
Most of this country’s 75,000 dams were pounded, cemented and erected into the paths of ancient free-flowing rivers before humans, especially at the political level, saw the big picture of negative biological, cultural and economic impacts of this river-jamming technology, notes Lizzie Grossman, author of the book, Watershed: The Undamming of America.
Grossman read from her just published book at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane on July 29, emphasizing how “in the past ten years people all over the country have been looking at waterways — how their local creek or river was ignored and abused.” There is a strong sense of wanting the rivers back, including breaching dams.
“America has spent most of its first two centuries turning its rivers into highways, ditches and power plants,” Grossman states. “Now, slowly, we are relearning what a river is and how to live with one. . . . Reconsidering the use of our rivers means examining our priorities as a nation. It forces us to rethink our patterns of consumption and growth and may well be the key to reclaiming a vital part of America’s future.”
“A dam can disrupt a river’s entire ecosystem, affecting everything from headwaters to delta,” Grossman puts into her book’s Forward. “So removing a dam, large or small, is not an easy process. . . . Dam removal alters the visual contours of a community. It is a very public enterprise and is almost always controversial, involving political decisions and civic debate.”
A hodgepodge of liberal environmental and politically conservative groups is pushing to gain political support for the Salmon Planning Act, which states that dam breaching is an option if all other routes to wild salmon species and habitat recovery fail to generate sustainable, healthy levels.
The executive director of Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Liz Hamilton, sees dam breaching from a died-in-the-wool capitalist point of view. Her own Republican Party roots and her membership’s conservative bent belie a dynamic most people do not associate with endangered species causes.
“Our industry lost 10,000 jobs in the northwest,” she noted as a consequence of the construction of the eight dams. “Fear mongers have led this issue: ‘If we don’t breach, every single salmon will die.’ On the other side, we’ve heard, ‘If we do breach, we will lose our jobs and way of life.’”
Hamilton sees her group and the coalition’s biggest challenge to convince people of the economic and cultural benefits of breaching dams as psychological. “People fear change. People have to see a future. If they don’t see themselves in it, your average citizen will not respond.”
Hamilton knows salmon restoration is costly. But she sees the Snake River system as a thousand miles of nearly pristine spawning habitat. Hamilton and her coalition lobby people to see a future many resist: removal of the four Snake River dams. “Without the dams we can still transport wheat. We can still generate electricity. We can still irrigate crops. The pressures that people put on the land will still be there when the dams are removed. . . . The cheapest thing to do is unblock a blocked culvert.”
The General Accounting Office reported that more than $3.3 billion in taxpayers’ money was spent by more than a dozen agencies the past 20 years to try and mitigate declines in Columbia River basin salmon runs. On top of that, tens-of-millions have also been spent by state and local governments.
This waste of money has paid for ill-conceived measures and technologies to try and help the fish survive the dams — 34 years of barging fish around dams. Snake River sockeye, Chinook salmon and steelhead were granted “protection” in 1991, ’92, and ’97 respectively through the Endangered Species Act.
Hatcheries have produced more than 90 percent of 2001 salmon and steelhead. Hatchery salmon are not the goal for the diverse environmental and scientific communities because of various issues, including disease, weak genetic lines, and stifling of biodiversity in its natural state. If wild salmon are not rejuvenated, many predict that by 2017 several indigenous populations will become extinct.
Additionally, RAND, a conservative “think tank,” completed a report in September 2002 that posits dam removal on the lower Snake will not bring with it economic turmoil. In fact, the RAND report shows how 10,000 long-term jobs might very well be created and centered right in the economically hard-hit communities that make up the Inland Empire.
Remove dams and help create livable wage jobs and revive a weak Inland Empire economy while preserving sustainable and abundant salmon? The answer seems obvious to most, but for those who resist, there is the 1855 treaty and Boldt decision which cost U.S. taxpayers upwards of $10 to $60 billion paid to the tribes for destroying their salmon and habitat.
“The salmon are our relatives,” Grey Owl said. “The salmon are of this land just as we are. We both share a connection to this land that is hardwired into our DNA. They teach us many spiritual lessons such as the circle of life, giving of yourself to help others, and that our life’s purpose should be to help someone else live.”