the film
Commentaries and editorials

A Monument to Failure

by Marty Trillhaase
Post Register, March 15, 2000

Fifty years from now, when children stroll along the banks of the Salmon River, that river's namesake probably will be extinct.

Vern Johnson of Shelley thinks those young visitors should know who robbed them of their heritage. He wants to erect a bronze memorial near the river. On it he would name the people responsible for letting the fish disappear from the Pacific Northwest.

"I just want to let future generations know why our river that at one time was so full of fish that you couldn't walk across it without being knocked down has nothing in it now except suckers," Johnson says.

He's got a terrific idea. America is chock full of monuments glorifying events and people. This would be something entirely new - a monument to failure.

For millennia, hundreds of thousands of salmon and steelhead spawned in the headwaters of Idaho and then traveled to the Pacific, only to return home to begin the cycle anew.

Since the completion of the four lower Snake River dams in the mid 1970s, those fish have been on a death spiral.

The Coho Salmon is extinct. The Sockeye, spring-summer and fall Chinook are on the endangered species list. Steelhead are listed as threatened. In one generation, Idaho has watched its native wild fish decline from a population of about 100,000 to 10,000. Another species could disappear in less than a decade.

When that happens, Johnson wants to erect a memorial on his land between Stanley and Clayton. He says "it's going to be nice and very big and maybe lit up at night."

Whose names should be on it?

Probably not the federal bureaucracies. The agencies responsible for managing fish, dams, power and water appear disorganized and unimaginative. They're not in charge.

And the dozens of Idaho leaders who helped build the dams in the 1960s and 1970s shouldn't be mentioned. They acted in the sincere belief that the region could sustain both dams and fish.

Since the late 1990s, however, it's been clear the region can keep its dams on the lower Snake River or it can have fish. It can not have both. And time is running out.

That means Idaho's congressional delegation and its governor have the opportunity to act - and will bear the responsibility for their choices.

Topping Johnson's memorial should be U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. He's Idaho's senior, most influential member of Congress. At every turn, Craig has fought for the dams and against the fish.

Right behind him should be Idaho's governor. Dirk Kempthorne maintains the state doesn't face a choice between dam breaching and extinction. If the governor's wishful thinking kills off the fish, he should be blamed.

Then comes U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth. This three-term Republican has waged war against fish recovery. She burst onto the public scene by parading a can of salmon as her evidence that there's no problem.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, have not been as hostile to fish advocates as Craig and Chenoweth. But neither have they shown the leadership of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who last month framed the issue as a choice between dam breaching or fish extinction. So if Idaho's fish wind up in a few pages of a high school history book, Crapo's and Simpson's names will belong on Johnson's memorial.

It will be a stark message. That's as it should be.

Marty Trillhaase
A Monument to Failure
Post Register, March 15, 2000

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