the film
Commentaries and editorials

Presidents and Fish:
Can't We All Get Along?

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, March 22, 2023

A review of presidential remarks on Snake River salmon recovery

George W. Bush on breaching lower Snake River dams, 'not on my watch' Snake River salmon recovery and proposals to breach the four lower Snake River dams have been a hot topic in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. But the issue has rarely caught the attention of sitting or want-to-be presidents.

The most expansive remarks on the topic may have been made by President George W. Bush when he visited Ice Harbor Dam near the Tri-Cities in 2003. Ice Harbor is the first of the four lower Snake River Dams and the only one that provides a significant amount of irrigation water to farmers.

Bush opposed dam breaching and during his Ice Harbor speech, he focused on his and the region's desire to recover salmon and steelhead without impacting services provided by the dams.

"We have shown the world that we can have good quality of life and, at the same time, save salmon. And that's exactly what this administration will continue to do."

Bush then said salmon were on the rise and he highlighted things like improvements to juvenile fish passage at the dams, hatcheries and habitat restoration. The 43rd president also said the dams are critical to the region.

"We don't need to be breaching any dams that are producing electricity. And we won't."

While running for president, Bush tried to draw Vice President Al Gore, his opponent for the office and a champion of the environment, into a fight over the issue. In the waning days of the Clinton administration, the White House Council on Environmental Quality declined to back Snake River dam removal. Bush along with conservation groups wanted to know where Gore stood.

The Veep said extinction is not an option but was otherwise content to avoid taking a hard position.

"I feel that it is irresponsible to reach a decision or draw a conclusion without consulting all of the parties involved and without utilizing hard science," Gore said while visiting Portland, Ore on a campaign stop in 2000. "I pledge to work for a quick resolution that will involve all of the affected parties based on hard science, and I refuse to prejudge or play politics with this issue."

Like Biden, Bush was prone to speech gaffes and awkward phrasing. While campaigning for president in 2000 he once said this:

Graphic: Wild Chinook runs to the Lower Snake River as counted at the highest dam in place at the time. (1961-2021) "I oppose breaching those dams. I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."

On Tuesday, Biden was geographically confused when talking about salmon recovery.

"I'm also committed to working with the tribal leaders here, as well as Senator Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell and Representative Mike Simpson to bring healthy and abundant salmon runs back to the Colorado River system."

President Obama followed a path similar to the one charted by his predecessor. His administration acknowledged salmon may benefit from dam removal but ultimately found it was not necessary. Obama had little to say about salmon, other than using their management as an example of the tangled jurisdictions of various federal agencies.

"Then there's my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

President Trump moved up the deadline to complete the court-ordered environmental impact statement on the Snake and Columbia River hydropower system. The document was scheduled to be completed in 2021 but Trump included it in an executive order dictating that required documentation of water infrastructure projects in the Western United States be completed by the fall of 2020. The Tribune could not immediately find any remarks Trump made about Snake River salmon or dams.

Eric Barker
Presidents and Fish: Can't We All Get Along?
Lewiston Tribune, March 22, 2023

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation