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Commentaries and editorials

Doing the Right Thing

by Ted Koch
Twin Times-News, April 7, 2021

Let's make sure our answer -- the consequences of which could last forever --
reflects the interests of our children's children.

Graphic: Survival of juvenile Chinook and Steelhead from Snake River trap at Lewiston/Clarkston to Bonneville Dam (Source: NOAA Fisheries, February 2019) Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities," is an observation often credited to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And so, we find ourselves with Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson who, seeing that we've exhausted all other possibilities, has proposed breaching the four lower Snake River dams to save salmon and steelhead while keeping dam-dependent economies whole.

Of course, to many, breaching dams is not the right thing. The dams have provided locally cheap but nationally subsidized transportation and power. Many residents of the region have family and friends who worked to build the dams and infrastructure. They represent an historic development achievement with strong emotional support.

Today, however, we have other ways of providing locally cheap but nationally subsidized transportation and power -- rail and trucking, solar and wind. We've also learned from $17 billion spent on other ideas over the last 50 years that we cannot have salmon and steelhead and the four dams, too. Losing these magnificent fish forever would be painful.

The science is as clear and simple as we choose to make it: Snake river fish runs have declined 98 percent since the four dams were built, and they return at rates three to seven times less than fish in the nearby Yakima and John Day rivers that don't have to face the four dams. Some argue this isn't "scientific proof." But really, science never "proves" anything; it only disproves other explanations, which fortunately in this case includes the $17 billion worth of other efforts that were obviously inadequate to the task.

I'm intimately familiar with the scientific contention on this question. In 1999 I was president of the Idaho Chapter of the American Fisheries Society and led our group of scientists to adopt a position statement that said, "If society wants to recover Snake River salmon and steelhead, then one biologically required action will be to remove the four lower Snake River dams." We worded it carefully to avoid telling the public what they should want, and we limited it just to what science said would be needed to restore these fish.

While 94 percent of member scientists voted to support it, I was excoriated by the remaining 6 percent. Their criticisms were focused less on the truth of the statement and more on their concern about scientists appearing to engage in "advocacy," despite our careful wording.

Today, apparently, advocacy be damned! Scientists now are signing group letters saying the same thing we concluded 22 years ago -- and then going the extra step of calling for dam removal. I say science can and should inform such decisions by the public, but as my critics in the past argued, scientists alone should not seek to impose their value judgements. While we fish biologists admittedly love fish, what do we know about the interests of those who support keeping these dams? Probably not much.

This fundamentally is a socio-political question: Do we keep river-based transportation and power knowing other viable alternatives exist, or do we keep Snake River salmon and steelhead that have no other viable alternative? Congressman Simpson's proposal is an honest and forthright effort to force ourselves as Americans to answer this question before the clock runs out on these fish and we no longer have a choice. Let's make sure our answer -- the consequences of which could last forever -- reflects the interests of our children's children, who will surely want us to have done the right thing.

Related Pages:
"Reject the Guiltless Complacency" by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Speech to Oregon American Fisheries Society, 2/00
AFS Approves Tribes' Call for BiOp Review by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 12/7/4
AFS Report Critiques Science in BiOp by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 6/10/5
Perspectives from the Idaho High Country by Don Chapman, Speech to Oregon American Fisheries Society, 2/11
Scientists say Removing Snake River Dams 'is Necessary' to Restore Salmon Population by Eric Barker, Lewiston Tribune, 2/23/21

Related Sites:
Simpson's announcement may be viewed here
Other documents associated his concept are available at

Ted Koch
Doing the Right Thing
Twin Times-News, April 7, 2021

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