An Upstream Paddle To Save the Salmon

As salmon swim toward extinction, northwest tribes and environmental activists continue a decades-long battle to restore the Snake River.

Christy Carley

Seattle activists in Puget Sound demand the removal of dams along the Snake River in eastern Washington at the Rally for the River on August 7. Christy Carley

SEATTLE — On the shores of Puget Sound, where evergreens mingle with industrial cranes, three activists hoist an orange banner into the air. Poised above the Seattle skyline, it addresses Washington’s Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell directly, demanding they Save Wild Salmon” and Restore Snake River.”

Just below the banner, about 50 protestors prepare for a march or half-mile kayak, one of six floating protests across the Northwest on August 7. Some affix signs to their boats while others inflate salmon- and orca shaped balloons (area orcas, one of Seattle’s iconic sights, rely on salmon from the Snake River).

The Rally for the River” has an almost playful atmosphere as the boats push off into the silver water, where new kayaktivists” paddle alongside the old guard. Debra Ellers, who dons a full-body orca suit, says this is her fourth flotilla protest in six years, but the message hasn’t changed: The four dams on the lower Snake River must be breached to save salmon and orcas from extinction.

With the approval of Seattle’s Duwamish Tribe, the mostly non-Native advocates are gathered to show solidarity with other Northwest tribes who have long advocated for a free-flowing Snake River.

Originating in Wyoming, the Snake River winds through Idaho and southeastern Washington, eventually joining the Columbia River out to the Pacific Ocean about 120 miles southwest of Seattle. Built between 1956 and 1975, the four lower Snake River dams in Washington provide hydropower, irrigation for farms and upriver transportation for grain. But these massive concrete structures have also caused salmon and steelhead populations, already depleted by industrial fishing, to plummet. Physical barriers impede fish migration, and stagnant pools created by the dams raise water temperatures to harmful levels, exacerbated by climate change. 

For some Northwest tribes, the dams are straining resources that define their way of life. The Treaty of 1855 promised fishing rights to the Nez Perce, for example, but without the salmon, that promise is empty. These for us are human rights issues,” Nakia Williamson-Cloud, cultural resource program director for the Nez Perce, tells the Seattle Times. Without these things we lose everything: identity, language, spirituality, our way of thinking.”

The Shoshone-Bannock tribes of southeastern Idaho were the first to petition for protection of Snake River salmon under the Endangered Species Act, in 1990. The sockeye secured a spot on that list in 1991. Spring and summer chinook followed. That’s when the legal saga began.

The Act required the federal government create an official protection plan for the fish, but conservation advocates insisted the plan fell short. In 1992, Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game decided to sue, kicking off a decades-long cycle of litigation by state agencies, tribes and environmental groups in which courts repeatedly sided with the salmon, rejecting five federal plans. In 2016, the U.S. District Court of Oregon encouraged the government to consider dam removal, rebuking federal agencies for their failure to save the salmon. Meanwhile, salmon restoration efforts (including hatchery programs and dam alterations) have cost the government more than $17 billion over the past 30 years, even as the fish swim toward extinction.

In February, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) surprised many salmon advocates with his $33.5 billion Columbia Basin Initiative, which suggests breaching the lower Snake dams while compensating the energy, agricultural and tourism industries. 

The plan has been met with both praise and concern. In May, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians issued a resolution of support signed by 50 of 57 member tribes. The National Congress of American Indians adopted a similar resolution shortly after, calling on Congress and the Biden administration to set aside funding. 

Opponents of dam removal — mostly community utilities and agricultural workers — cite the necessity of hydropower for a carbon-free future. But others argue the decreasing cost of wind and solar power, paired with new battery technology and energy efficiency, could render these particular dams obsolete. 

Still others are wary of Simpson’s initiative for a different reason — because it includes a 35- to 50-year extension for the other dams in the Columbia Basin and a 35-year moratorium on related environmental litigation. In an open letter published in March, representatives of various environmental groups argued dam removal should not be achieved by suspending the protections of our bedrock environmental laws for a generation or more.” In Congress to date, only Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has come out in favor of Simpson’s proposal, though he doesn’t support the litigation moratorium. Simpson has been careful to emphasize that his plan is not yet final; drafting the actual bill could take a year or more. 

Indigenous communities, meanwhile, are demanding immediate action. We’re talking about survival,” Devon Boyer, chairman of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, said on July 7 at a gathering of more than 15 tribes organized by the Nez Perce and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. 

Speakers at the Rally for the River echoed this urgency. We have to breach the dams,” said Bill Moyer, executive director of the Backbone Campaign, an artistic activist group and rally cosponsor. We have to do it ASAP.”

The Treaty of 1855 promised fishing rights to the Nez Perce, for example, but without the salmon, that promise is empty.

Christy Carley is a Seattle- and Spain- based journalist and In These Times editorial intern.

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