The Northwest salmon story is a complicated political, economic and social debate that involves scores of competing interests.
Here's a look at some of the major players and what each has at stake:
- The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets electricity from the dams and provides about 20 percent of Idaho's power. It sells its power to public utilities in the Pacific Northwest for what it costs to produce, and to other utilities at market prices. BPA also pays some of the costs of salmon restoration. It tries to limit how much it has to pay for the fish and maximize how much water it can run through its turbines to produce electricity and revenue to cover its heavy debt load. Through its control of the wildlife fund and its ability to spread its money to supporters throughout the region it has enormous political power on its own.
- NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is in charge of protecting ocean-going fish like salmon and steelhead under the federal Endangered Species Act. It wrote the biological opinion that Judge James Redden rejected.
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers that impede the migration of the fish between Idaho and the Pacific. It puts in place the measures that reduce the killing of salmon at the dams and operates the barges that collect the migrating fish at the first dams and carry them to the estuary below the last dam before the Pacific.
- The state of Oregon, led by Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, was the only state that joined salmon advocates in suing over the federal government's salmon plan. It did not join in asking Redden for an interim plan. Oregon has been the state fighting the hardest for fish since Gov. Phil Batt stepped down as Idaho governor in 1998. Batt and former Gov. Cecil Andrus had sided in court with salmon advocates. The state of Oregon's main economic concerns are protecting shipping through the Columbia estuary, irrigation water pumped from John Day Reservoir and low-cost hydroelectric power.
- The state of Washington, headed by newly elected Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, intervened on the side of salmon advocates in the federal lawsuit, but was not a plaintiff. It is the largest beneficiary of BPA's low-cost power, so it often sides with BPA when power and salmon interests collide. But the salmon industry is also strong in Washington, and voters west of the Cascades are pro-salmon. Washington leaders have opposed breaching the four Snake River dams in their state for their economic values.
- The state of Montana, led by newly elected Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is the only one of the four Northwest states that no longer has salmon runs. But it does have federal dams whose operations are tied to those on the Columbia and the Snake and limited by the Endangered Species Act-protection for salmon and steelhead. It wants to protect cheap federal power from BPA and to keep water in its reservoirs for resident fisheries including threatened bull trout.
- The state of Idaho, led by Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, intervened on the side of the federal government in the lawsuit and has had a shifting role in the regional debates over time. Idaho has, however, consistently defended its water by offering early on to provide up to 427,000 acre- feet of water from its southern Idaho reservoirs and protesting the water the federal government takes from Dworshak Reservoir near Orofino. In the 1990s, Idaho sued the federal government for not protecting salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers. But since his election, Kempthorne has supported federal efforts to protect the fish with a larger, ecosystem approach of protecting habitat, reforming hatcheries, reducing fish catches and managing hydro operations.
- The Columbia River Tribal Fish Commission is the umbrella management agency for the four tribes with rights to Columbia River fish under a 1855 treaty: the Yakama, the Nez Perce, the Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes. The tribes guard their treaty rights the way Idaho guards its water, and catching salmon is a fundamental right that is important economically, spiritually and politically to tribal leaders. The tribes support breaching the four lower Snake dams and the aggressive use of hatcheries to restore salmon numbers. They are part of the coalition suing over federal dam plan.
- Save Our Wild Salmon is the national coalition of environmental groups, fishermen, fishing businesses and related organizations fighting for harvestable levels of wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin. It has long said breaching the four Snake River dams in Washington is a necessary part of salmon recovery, especially for Idaho's salmon and steelhead. Some but not all of its members participated in the lawsuit against the federal government.
- Other interest groups include BPA customers, irrigation farmers, barge operators, shippers and communities on all sides of the debate. Alaska also weighs in because its commercial fishing industry is limited by Endangered Species Act protection of Columbia River fish that swim through Alaskan waters. Nationally, critics of federal power agencies like BPA weigh in along with taxpayer groups concerned over the high cost of salmon recovery. Canada has an interest in ocean fishing and in the waters of the Columbia River above Grand Coulee Dam.
Competing Interests Complicate Finding a Way to Save Salmon Runs
The Idaho Statesman, June 5, 2005
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