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The content of Simpson’s salmon plan has been at forefront. But its character may matter even more.

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Congressman Mike Simpson, second from right, and his wife, Kathy, visit Marsh Creek in Custer County, where Chinook salmon spawn. (Courtesy of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson/ Simpson.House.Gov)

Simpson now knows, better than any member of Congress, how deeply extinction of Snake River salmon will damage Idaho and the Northwest, writes guest columnist Pat Ford.

The beat goes on to salmon extinction in Idaho and northeast Oregon.

New evidence is constant. A few Snake River sockeye salmon are reaching Redfish Lake this year in trucks – so that some of the very hot water in their 860-mile inland migration will be avoided by a few of the already few sockeye returning. Columbia Riverkeeper released underwater video of sockeye, some perhaps bound for Idaho, succumbing to heat death in a Columbia tributary before even reaching the Snake. The Nez Perce Tribal fisheries staff reports that 42% of the Snake River’s spring/summer Chinook salmon populations now average 50 or fewer spawning fish annually. On current trend, 77%, will average 50 or fewer spawners five years from now.

At our hands, extinction in the wild of these cornucopian creatures, the highest and farthest-inland group of salmon and steelhead on earth, is just ahead. I hold on to the progress for their rescue that Mike Simpson has sparked since February, with the same thought for the salmon: hold on.

For good reasons, most attention to Congressman Simpson’s Columbia Basin Initiative has focused on its contents. But, five months in, I think its character matters more.

Viewed by Northwest members of Congress, the Columbia-Snake salmon/dams tangle (*1) is a snarling beast with claws and teeth. Even as the beast further tears the Northwest apart, it warns any leader thinking of taking it on to keep clear or lose a lot of skin.

Mike Simpson, a Republican from eastern Idaho, is the first Northwest member of Congress to take the beast on in 41 years. The character of his action best illuminates the choice now posed to Sens. Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley, Mike Crapo and Jon Tester; the Biden administration; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; and Northwest residents: to join, or not, a legislative effort in the U.S. Congress to rescue and restore salmon.

Others’ lists, including Mr. Simpson’s own, will differ. I find eight main characteristics in his initiative, which overlap: experienced legislative leadership; commitment to Snake River salmon and steelhead; facing science and acting forthrightly on it; political courage; an approach to the many engaged parties that significantly benefits and sharply challenges each one; making opportunities out of problems; an opening to bi-partisan action; and partnership with Northwest tribes. Here I expand on five of these, ending with the most politically meaningful: the partnership Northwest tribes and Mike Simpson are building.

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Congressman Simpson’s commitment to Snake River salmon and steelhead is personal and professional. He knows how salmon distinguish Idaho history, people and places. He knows many of the places, and their people: the Salmon River, Redfish Lake, Marsh Creek, Salmon, Stanley. With family and friends, he has watched startlingly large fish, having come 850 miles inland, reproduce and then give their ocean bodies to their mountain homes.

This ceremony – that is how it feels – was once enacted in Idaho by millions of salmon, then in diminishing steps by thousands. It consummates today in twos and fours adding up to some deeply endangered hundreds. But the power is still present in each fish, stream and mating. For thousands of years, those who witness this power have been hooked. Mr. Simpson is hooked.

Professionally, he and his staff have pursued nearly every connection Snake River salmon and steelhead have with the Northwest – with cultures, communities, treaties, economies, geographies, electric utilities, farms, fresh and saltwater webs, and sacred traditions. This full body immersion shows in the intricate contents of his initiative. From his immersion, he now knows, better than any Northwest member of Congress, how deeply extinction of Snake River salmon will damage Idaho and the Northwest. And how widely their return to productivity will heal and enliven.

His personal attachment became public at the 2019 Andrus Center conference in Boise, and is now plain in words and emotion each time he speaks. His professional investment grew jigsaw-like. He listened to nearly every party with connection to Snake River salmon and the salmon/dams tangle, and patiently sorted the clashing needs he heard into a legislative concept that is at once coherent and sprawling. I fidgeted through the two years he listened and shuffled the pieces, but his mere endorsement of what salmon need would have meant little. He took the time to create a practical legislative framework to get salmon what they need, while carrying much other Northwest business too, compensatory and new. However you judge its individual parts, no one, salmon advocates included, has ever attempted anything close to his design to achieve, not just state, what salmon need.

It bears attention that his bond with Idaho salmon is rooted in another institution: the public lands. He is a champion of public lands, waters, and their public uses, as legislation like the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness, Land and Water Conservation Fund, and Great American Outdoors Act attests. He knows Idaho is the highest and farthest-inland salmon habitat stronghold on earth only because public and ceded lands exist. He knows salmon pump health into, and their absence drains health from, Northwest public lands. This is common ground of which more can be made – perhaps notably in Oregon, given eastern Oregon’s extensive public land habitats for Snake River salmon and steelhead.

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Congressman Mike Simpson, second from right, and his wife, Kathy, visit Marsh Creek in Custer County, where Chinook salmon spawn. (Courtesy of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson/ Simpson.House.Gov)

Mr. Simpson has weighed science, and forthrightly faced the facts and high likelihoods of its consensus conclusions. No prior Northwest member of Congress has met this standard for Columbia-Snake salmon. Honest treatment of salmon/dams science is a core indicator whether Northwest senators, governors, and the administration also decide to seek legislation, even should their contents differ from Simpson’s.

His conclusions from science are carefully stated: “I’m not certain removing these [lower Snake River] dams will restore Idaho’s salmon, and prevent their extinction. But I am certain that if we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho salmon to extinction.” (*2)

I know three of the scientists he consulted. From different rooms in the house of salmon science, they share the strong house consensus:

  • Snake River salmon and steelhead will be extinct very soon under current trends and management
  • Restoring the lower Snake’s 140 miles of migratory and spawning habitat has a high likelihood of reversing the fish out of extinction and into recovery, especially when coupled with other sound measures in and out of the dammed habitat.

Simpson’s support to remove four dams got the headlines. But his first conclusion from science is that without decisive change soon, Snake River salmon and steelhead will be extinct soon. From this fact, he then came to the lower Snake dams.

Prior to Simpson, the Idaho member of Congress with most personal sympathy for Idaho salmon and salmon people was Mike Crapo. But he steered clear of dams, and thus of helping salmon, for a reason unchanged over two decades: “It’s not time.” (*3) That political judgment, well founded from Crapo’s viewpoint, was primary for him. It has been primary too for Congressional Democrats in Oregon and Washington.

Mr. Simpson’s political judgment does not seem to me to greatly differ: For many powerful communities in the Northwest, some of them his constituents and some federal agencies, it is clearly still not time. But he reached a conclusion from science – Idaho’s salmon have no more time to wait – and then made his political choices. His initiative is steeped in political calculations, but in service to the politically inconvenient fact that Snake River salmon are out of time.

The fact isn’t new, but a senior Northwest Republican as its herald is. Simpson, for example, is confronting in public the amputation facing Oregon – salmon extinction in the Grand Ronde, Imnaha, and Minam Rivers – before Oregon’s Democratic senators have.(*4) With Oregon’s governor, tribes, and fishing and conservation folks abetting, Sens. Wyden and Merkley should now be hard put to avoid facing the grim fact, squarely and publicly. If they face it, both are taken straight to the question Simpson asked himself: “What am I going to do about it?”

The usual evasion, repeated recently by Sen. Cantwell and others, has been to say sound science should guide salmon action, and then dodge the responsibility of leaders to face the conclusions such sound science has already reached for Snake River salmon. By breaking from that mold, Congressmen Simpson and Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and Northwest tribal leaders are pushing fellow Northwest leaders, and the Biden administration, onto more honest scientific ground.

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Congressman Simpson is demonstrating political courage – in this case, and as a model for the decades of such courage our Northwest will demand. The weather of 2021, repeating and worsening forward, will not reward evasion.

In a volatile period in what I’ll call right-of-center politics, in Idaho and nationally, (*5) most of Simpson’s political base is angry to wary about his initiative. His fellow Northwest Republican leaders, including old allies, are angry and unbending. Utility, farm and shipping folks are, with exceptions, blends of riled and defensive. Bonneville Power and the Army Corps have hunkered down into mostly stealthy kneecapping, at which both are practiced regarding salmon. Mr. Simpson has indeed lost skin to the beast, as he knew he would.

But his leap into this political grinder is what Idaho salmon need, so he leapt and has been at gallop since. While losing skin, he has taken some too. And, whatever the trouble he has with his base, he is steering into it, with close contact, consultation and persuasion.

Most of the crucial Northwest Democrats have shown political courage one or more times in their careers. So have President Joe Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and others in the administration. They have the opportunity, and responsibility, to show it again.

But “political courage” implies that only elected leaders are on this hook. Northwest residents also face a courage and character test that cannot be outsourced. Longtime journalist and writer Tim Egan nailed it 30 years ago: The Northwest is anywhere a salmon can get to. Will we consent, or acquiesce, to chop Idaho and northeast Oregon off the Northwest?

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Congressman Simpson’s approach to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley is emblematic how his initiative creates opportunities that reframe problems.

For some time, the Lewiston area has shared least of any Idaho region in our state’s headlong economic growth. Economic insecurity is surely one reason many local people hold tight to the lower Snake dams despite their shrinking local value. Salmon advocates’ long-standing pledge to “keep people whole” has not persuaded. It isn’t believed, or locally detailed, or responsive to the genuine risks of change. It offers no positive inducement, or guarantee of participation in how change occurs, to a region economically more precarious than any other in Idaho. (*6)

Simpson’s approach is, make the L-C Valley’s dam users better than whole, and provide the valley a suite of new attractions to people and business. He allots considerable funds to replace and improve local uses connected to the lower Snake dams – shipping, irrigation, and so forth. He allots roughly equal funds to new opportunities: multi-use modern waterfronts for Lewiston and Clarkston; expanded recreation, national branding, and visitor attractions on and along the restoring river; a clean energy research center tied to universities and the Tri-Cities research complex; expanded programs, business and employment for the Nez Perce Tribe and its members; local salmon and steelhead fishing in the Clearwater and Salmon rivers. Alongside these specifics is his commitment that Lewiston will participate in making its necessarily different future, in choosing and steering specifics, with federal financial backing.

In the short-term, his approach is not likely to win Lewiston over; the divides and resistance are deep. But, if change must come, he has provided pragmatic people and leaders in the area the most tangible set of options and resources so far assembled, plus a path to participate in how the change is made.

Versions of this approach, tailored to other communities and interests, occur throughout his initiative. Some I do not like. But then my next thought is to thank God for Mr. Simpson’s pragmatic creativity as he urgently seeks to enact, in the actual, imperfect U.S. Congress of 2021-22, the largest river restoration ever done on earth.

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The Simpson initiative’s opening to Northwest tribes must be paired with the tribes’ opening to the initiative. It is a partnership, in formation as I write, and still new to the partners. It is more than politics, but also the weightiest political result from Simpson’s effort so far.

Mr. Simpson layered tribal benefit throughout his initiative – large-scale salmon and river recovery, tribal co-control of apportioning Bonneville Power salmon dollars, new funds for many tribes’ own salmon projects and programs, continuing work to reintroduce salmon above dams, cooperative water quality opportunities. I think this inclusion makes it certain that, if legislation moves, tribal people in Idaho, the Columbia Basin, Puget Sound, and along the coast will actively shape and share in its opportunities. The tribes have earned this prior to Mike Simpson, but he is the first Northwest member of Congress to offer region-wide substance and pledge to put it in law. This is a second reason, as historic as reversing Snake River salmon extinction, for other Northwest leaders to join the legislative train.

Northwest tribes responded first with support, and now with supporting action across all the dimensions of an effective campaign: policy, law, science, people action, making news, political contact, and alliances. Tribal governments and leaders are active and visible, as are tribal people, notably young people. Every Northwest member of Congress is being influenced, and I think the influence will grow. Northwest tribes also have more leverage on Biden Administration salmon policy than any other pro-salmon voice. This matters because the dam agencies’ 40-year headlock on federal salmon policy will take a lot of push, and clout, to change.

The tribes’ July 7-8 Salmon and Orca Summit, sponsored by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the Nez Perce Tribe at the Squaxin Island Reservation in south Puget Sound, was impressive even for those who attended virtually. And more so for those present in person – among them leaders and staff of tribes, Congressman Simpson and his staff, senior staff with Sens. Murray and Crapo, and two administration officials. Tribal leaders and the Republican from Idaho formed personal bonds and a surer alliance.

“The key to this whole thing is you all,” Simpson told the assembled tribes – a politic statement that is also a political fact.

Certain individual tribes are more in the lead, and likely to benefit from Simpson-like legislation more than others. But I think it is the united voice of Northwest tribes that led the National Congress of American Indians to adopt in June a resolution endorsing with gusto the legislative concept authored by a conservative Idaho Republican. NCAI and the tribal networks of which it is part have real power in Washington, D.C.

Work by conservation and non-tribal fishing folks for Columbia-Snake salmon has also burst forth in response to Simpson’s initiative, and is growing. For my small part of it, I am inspired to now recognize that we are not Mike Simpson’s most powerful partner. We are partners, and have power, and it is very good some of our partners have more.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.