Pat Ford

Co-founder and former Executive Director, Save Our Wild Salmon

Northwest Salmon are a Northwest icon. As Tim Egan famously said “the Northwest is anywhere a salmon can get to.” But the iconic Northwest salmon are also in peril; thirteen species of Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead have been listed as endangered over the past twenty years.

Fishing and business people have learned that the Act can be a very effective tool for jobs and economies.

Salmon are also an economic mainstay, unique among endangered species in the breadth and depth of their value. Estimates of Northwest salmon-dependent jobs range from 10,000 to 20,000—the cumulative tally of tribal, sport, and commercial fishing; tourism and outdoor recreation activities; and food businesses. Thus, the endangerment of salmon also endangers economies in five states along western rivers and coastlines. This creates a significant common interest among fishing, conservation, and business people, and other groups across the Northwest.

Political orientations differ from group to group, and cultural differences among us are sometimes profound, yet the decline of salmon—and the scope of changes required to safeguard them—have drawn many diverse people together. As we’ve tackled issues, we’ve had to learn how to put our differences aside to work for a greater good. We have learned that we have far greater power as a coalition than we do as individuals, or even as separate organizations.

We accomplished much, though not all, of this collaborative work through the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, where I worked for twenty-two years. We’ve made progress for salmon—not enough progress, yet, to restore any of the imperiled stocks—but enough to buy precious years for the most endangered of them, and enough to begin stabilizing some populations.

While many people have worked hard, despite their differences, to achieve this progress, I give the fundamental credit to the salmon themselves. The power of the connections they make—between land and water, river and ocean, tribal and non-tribal, economy and ecology, upstream and downstream communities—is the source of the common ground we’ve found and the common power we’ve used on their behalf.

And the Endangered Species Act? Fishing and business people have learned that the Act can be a very effective tool for jobs and economies. Conservationists have learned it can—and I would say must—be a door through which we leave our comfort zones to partner with others whose help we need in order to protect these species. Many elected leaders and some of our early opponents have learned that, while the Act may sometimes be a force for disruptive change, it is also a force for social and economic progress.

For Northwest salmon, the Endangered Species Act has been and remains a tool for economic as well as ecological progress. But there’s also reciprocity: salmon, and the pattern of connections they make, have helped inform and deepen how we in the Northwest have learned to use the Act. And more: we have made significant strides to help people and their communities by effectively employing the Endangered Species Act to help salmon.