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Commentaries and editorials

Free the Snake and Restore
Salmon to Honor Treaty Rights

by Julian Matthews
The Cleanest Line, February 3, 2017

A young Nez Perce, fights for the restoration of salmon that his ancestors have held at the heart of spirituality for millenia. Salmon have sustained the Nimiipuu people since time began for us. Nimiipuu means “the people” and is one amongst many names the Nez Perce call themselves.

The loss of healthy numbers of salmon returning up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to our traditional lands in Idaho and Oregon, where we have fished and hunted for generations, has been devastating to our people, families and culture. In recent decades, our tribe has dedicated resources, including expert fisheries biologists and attorneys, to restore the fisheries and fight for legal protections in court. But it has not been enough. For salmon to return in the numbers needed to sustain our tribe, our rivers and the lands around us, the four lower Snake River dams must be removed.

Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment is a grassroots organization committed to protecting tribal treaty rights within our original ceded lands and usual and accustomed places. We also believe that with our treaty rights comes treaty responsibilities: the need to protect our salmon, wildlife, rivers and lands so that they survive and thrive for the next generations. We work with tribal members and environmental allies to push for the restoration of wild salmon to our home lands.

Right now, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore wild salmon to the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries—once the greatest salmon rivers in the world. We can do this by removing four outdated and expensive dams on the lower Snake River.

For too long these four dams have impeded the rights of Nez Perce and other Northwest First Peoples to exercise traditional fishing treaty rights. The U.S. federal government promised the Nez Perce People the right to hunt and fish in their usual and accustomed places as part of the 1855 Treaty. The promise was broken. It’s past time to right this wrong.

Wild salmon, steelhead and pacific lamprey (an eel that migrates to the ocean just like salmon do) have been used by the Nez Perce People for subsistence, trade and ceremonial purposes for centuries. These species have been decimated by four outdated dams: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite on the lower Snake River between Pasco, Washington, and Lewiston, Idaho.

For nearly 20 years, despite five failed, illegal plans, the federal agencies have refused to fully evaluate both the biological and economic benefits of removing these dams. But now, a federal judge has directly ordered the government to develop a new salmon restoration plan—called a draft environmental impact statement (EIS)—and to include dam removal as an option to be considered.

Federal agencies are seeking the public’s input on this plan until February 7. We join with thousands of other people in urging the agencies to include dam removal as an option and thoroughly review the biological benefits to salmon, steelhead and lamprey; the economic benefits of removing four outdated deadbeat dams; and what dam removal would mean to restoring wild salmon to Nimiipuu lands and honoring our treaty rights.

And what is good for the wild salmon is also good for taxpayers and our economy. These money-losing dams provide no flood control and minimal irrigation that could continue from a free-flowing river. The small amount of power they produce—less than four percent of the region’s power—can be replaced with wind, solar and other truly clean energy sources. Primarily, these four dams were built for barging wheat and other goods downriver from Lewiston. But barging has declined more than 70 percent in the past 20 years as shippers have moved to rail and truck. It’s time to invest money into clean energy sources and a modern transportation system and restore our salmon and rivers.

As our rivers and salmon face greater challenges under climate change, these four dams have become much more deadly and the need to remove them more urgent. In summer, the water in the dams’ reservoirs is growing hotter, reaching temperatures lethal to salmon and causing devastating fish kills of both out-migrating smolts and returning adult salmon. If we remove the four lower Snake River dams, our salmon have a tremendous opportunity to rebound. Removing the dams would open a pathway for salmon to thousands of miles of pristine cold-water streams in the wilderness of central Idaho, creating an Ark for salmon in a warming world.

The time is now to free the Snake River and remove these four deadbeat dams. Let’s restore wild salmon, honor treaty rights and bring about the biggest river restoration in history. Lend your voice to the cause today. The deadline to comment is February 7. Tell the federal agencies to free the Snake!

Update: Even though the deadline to comment has passed, it’s not too late to get involved. Please follow and support the good work these groups are doing to bring down the four lower Snake River dams.
Related Pages:
Count the Fish, 1977-2016, Salmon Recovery Efforts by GAO


Julian Matthews is the director of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment in Lapwai, Idaho. He has been actively involved in environmental issues for the last 20 years primarily in response to threats made to the Treaty of 1855. Julian’s main goal is to ensure that tribal youth and adults are educated and have good knowledge of the issues affecting them and that the Nimiipuu take an active role in protecting their treaty rights.
Free the Snake and Restore Salmon to Honor Treaty Rights
The Cleanest Line, February 3, 2017

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