In April 2019, Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, gave a somewhat stunning keynote address at an environmental conference hosted by Boise State’s Andrus Center for Public Policy. His comments were thoughtful, educated, and encouraging. But mostly, they were surprising, particularly his thoughts about what might be necessary to save Idaho salmon. Rep. Simpson and I discussed the topic in mid-December, and his quotes below come from his keynote and our conversation. Can Idaho salmon truly be saved? No one knows. But the Congressman has been down a similarly daunting path. In 2015, Mr. Simpson’s 15-year effort to broker a seemingly impossible deal resulted in the creation of Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness. (Which Mark Menlove covered in his 2014 feature, “A Fisherman’s Monument.”) If wild salmon and steelhead can indeed be saved, then Rep. Simpson is providing these essential fish the best shot they’ve had in decades. —TB
Salmon need a river, and right now, they don’t have one.
We’ve spent 17 billion dollars trying to restore salmon runs, and the fact is, it’s not happening. And if we don’t do something soon, we can write off Idaho salmon to history.
I think we’ll have a bill ready to go, possibly in the first quarter of this coming year. It will obviously be controversial.
For the past three years, we’ve been asking the “what if” questions. If you took the dams out to restore salmon runs, how would you handle the grain getting to Portland? How would you handle the power loss? We’ve had more than 300 meetings with different organizations and stakeholders, but this time it’s going to be different.
The stars are kind of aligned, also. The BPA (Bonneville Power Administration) needs help, because they are facing financial problems, so if we can marry that with restoring salmon runs, I think we’ve got a chance of getting this done.
We don’t have a Columbia River anymore. We have a series of stagnant pools behind dams. How do you restore a river?
It’s going to be huge. Maybe the biggest environmental restoration project in the world.
Someone has to make the bold effort, so we’re going to try.
When I was speaker of the House in Idaho, 25 years ago, it was the first time I’d ever heard the idea of breaching these dams, and I started to laugh. I said, “That will never happen.”
There’s been like 25 collaborative efforts put together over the years to try and save salmon. These groups get together and start talking about increasing flows or whatever, and they say, “Yes, we can do this, yes we can do that.” And when it gets to the idea of breaching dams, it all falls apart.
We can have the best spawning habitat in the world, but if the fish can’t get to it, then it doesn’t really mean anything.
It’s time we re-look at the Northwest Power Act. I think the challenges facing the BPA also create the opportunity for us to solve the salmon crisis. The reality is, you cannot write a new Northwest Power Act without addressing the salmon issue. You can’t address the salmon issue without addressing dams. And you cannot address the dam issue without addressing the challenges that the BPA is facing. They are interwoven.
We can write it, or someone else will, and impose it upon us.
Everything that we do on the Columbia River, we can do differently, if we choose to.
There is a looming problem, and it’s approaching quicker than anyone might think. It’s kind of like the side-view mirror on your car: Objects may be closer than they appear.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going stay alive long enough to see salmon return, in healthy populations, in Idaho.