The Northwest’s visionary opportunity to bring salmon back to abundance through the largest river restoration in history

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A phoenix is a long-lived bird from ancient Greek folklore that is born from the ashes of its predecessor. Similar to a phoenix, the Pacific Northwest has an opportunity to be reborn from the metaphorical ashes of the Snake River dams more vibrant and vivacious than ever before.

The four dams on the lower Snake River were once a necessary phoenix, supplying Washington state with a small amount of clean energy and allowing agricultural interests to ship their goods to port. However, the dams also destroyed the cultural, spiritual, and economic way of life for tribes by inundating their lands and decimating salmon populations. The dams add to the demise of the Southern Resident orca population that feeds almost exclusively on salmon. The dams disrupt an entire ecosystem and now represent a phoenix that is ready to become ashes. This phoenix is no longer useful, it’s time is past, and it can make way for a brighter future.


On February 6th, Congressman Simpson (R-ID) introduced a historic proposal to create a new phoenix for the Northwest by breaching the lower Snake River dams and from those “ashes” reinvigorate salmon, orca, and the communities that rely on them.

Congressman Simpson’s proposal is not yet legislation; it is a framework that acknowledges that these dams are an outdated phoenix that needs to crumble in order to rebuild a 21st century Pacific Northwest with a free-flowing Snake River and updated, clean infrastructure. It is a recognition that Northwest salmon and Southern Resident orcas that are part of our regional culture, economy, and ecology will be unable to return from the brink of extinction if the four Lower Snake River dams remain in place.

Water flowing over rapids on river

Dam removal is only a small fraction of the proposal. This comprehensive framework will restore salmon habitat and create water quality projects from Montana to the west coast, remove four concrete impediments to salmon’s migration, and provide funding to remove other obsolete dams. This plan invests in Northwest transportation infrastructure and clean energy, ensuring a just transition and creating jobs. Funding for tourism, recreation and economic development in the Tri-Cities and Lewiston-Clarkston areas can bring new opportunities to the regions impacted by dam removal. Perhaps most importantly, the framework proposes indigenous co-management of Northwest fisheries and provides funding for several projects of tribal importance.

Reactions from Columbia River tribes include this statement from Shannon Wheeler, Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, “we view restoring the lower Snake River – a living being to us, and one that is injured – as urgent and overdue… Restoring salmon and the lower Snake River can also reunite and strengthen regional communities and economies.”

"I urge our senators and congressional representatives to join Congressman Simpson in advocating for legislation to breach the lower Snake River dams, and taking bold action to restore our salmon." - Chairman Delano Saluskin, Yakama Nation

This proposal is a historic step towards protecting salmon, orca, and Northwest communities, but it is just the first step. There are aspects of the framework from Rep. Simpson that are concerning, but we are committed to continuing the conversation and having difficult discussions with regional leaders and stakeholders. Decades of regional roundtables and stakeholder discussions have set the stage – let’s flip the light and get this show going. Our Northwest congressional delegation is at its most powerful in a generation. Salmon are in crisis, the Southern Resident orca population has “only a few potentially reproductive females for the future,” and our nation has broken promises to tribes for too long.

We have a choice to create a new future on our own terms or to remain in a cycle of litigation, uncertainty, and forced resolutions. We need members of Congress from Washington and Oregon, especially Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, to lead our region, refine a proposal for a new future, and commit to advancing it via an infrastructure package this spring.

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2 comments on “The Northwest’s visionary opportunity to bring salmon back to abundance through the largest river restoration in history

  1. Well written, Chris! Love the vision for the restored, free-flowing Snake, and the call to action.
    I do disagree with the description of them as “necessary,” as these dams were never needed for the minimal hydropower they generate, nor for shipping. Grain farmers on the Palouse have been shipping their products globally since the 1800s via rail and other methods, long before the dams were built. These dams were a mistake from the start: Opposed by fish experts and fiscally-responsible politicians; poorly-engineered without proper juvenile fish passage; and politically devious, the product of back-room maneuvers and arm-twisting to get them built.

    But let’s look forward, and work to get breaching done asap for the sake of salmon, Southern Resident Orcas, economic sanity, and tribal rights!

  2. Please, everyone, write to Governor Inslee and Senators Cantwell and Murray and tell them you support this plan and want them to work with Simpson to make it a reality. The pro-dam lobby is strong. We must fight for this. We must ALL raise our voices to save our iconic species from extinction.

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