Endangered Salmon: Priceless

Tribes contend that dams in the Pacific Northwest have depleted wild salmon.© www.sierraclub.org

Last week, the federal government announced it had come to terms with four Indian tribes, agreeing to pay some $900 million to spur the recovery of endangered wild salmon runs across the Pacific Northwest. In return for the money, the tribes agreed to back off from a long-running lawsuit faulting dam operations for the decline of the region’s once-mighty salmon, and also promised not to join the growing chorus of voices calling for breaching the region’s dams.

The deal ends years of legal wrangling over the issue between the Bush administration and the Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama and Colville tribes. Federal officials consider the agreement a model for how to balance tribal and commercial fishing rights, protection for endangered salmon and hydro-electric energy demands. But environmentalists think the only way to restore the region’s dwindling salmon runs is by breaching the dams now preventing the fish from reaching their upstream spawning grounds.

"The opportunity to restore these fish is rapidly slipping away," said Todd True, an attorney for the nonprofit Earthjustice, who insists that federal agencies are "more interested in protecting the status quo rather than in restoring wild salmon." Earthjustice is currently representing several environmental groups in a lawsuit calling for federal agencies to increase water flows over Pacific Northwest dams—at the expense of power generation—so as to improve salmon habitat. The groups would like to see the region’s dams breached entirely in the long run. A few years ago such a notion seemed preposterous, but 2009 will see the removal of the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam along the Elwha River in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. If salmon runs there return like biologists are expecting—and a more progressive White House and Congress takes office—environmentalists could find cooperation in toppling more dams.

Sources: Seattle Times; Earth Justice