Leaders from a dozen Native American tribes in the Columbia Basin are seeking a dialogue with energy, agriculture and business interests aimed at advancing discussions of Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s plan to save salmon by breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

According to a news release, issued by the Nez Perce Tribe, the leaders met Wednesday and Thursday to craft a set of principles to guide such talks.

River

Simpson has proposed breaching the dams and investing $33 billion to replace lost hydropower, find new ways for farmers who use the river to get crops to market and invest in communities like Lewiston and Clarkston.

The Snake River and many of its tributaries are home to threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs. The tribes built their cultures and economies around the Columbia River salmon runs and have been leaders in efforts to restore the fish to abundance.

“The Indian people of the Columbia River Basin are united by being fishing people since time immemorial. Today, we remain united to ensure that salmon remain in the rivers for our children and beyond,” said Raymond Tsumpti, tribal council chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

They said the “true wealth” of the Pacific Northwest, its culture and history, starts with healthy rivers and fish runs. But they said agriculture and affordable and reliable power are also important to tribal and nontribal families and businesses throughout the region.

Some of the principles can be traced to elements of Simpson’s plan. For example, they said providing legal certainty for other dams in the basin is a needed element of a solution to the salmon problem and that Simpson’s plan is an opportunity for the region to make significant investments in energy and transportation systems while also saving sockeye, chinook and steelhead that return to rivers in Idaho, eastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

Like Simpson, the tribes said rejecting a deal that would breach the Snake River dams while making massive investments in replacement power, alternative commodity transportation systems and community development could result in a future where the dams are breached without robust mitigation. They referenced a sweeping dam removal package on the Klamath River that was rejected by Congress. Now, those dams are slated to be removed anyway.

“The time for action is now,” the news release said. “The Columbia Basin cannot become another Klamath Basin crisis.”

“We invite and challenge our partners and our neighbors to take a hard look at how Congressman Simpson’s proposal could benefit our energy security, our economies, and our critical natural resources for the benefit of all,” said Delano Saluskin, chairman, Tribal Council, Yakama Nation.

Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Executive Committee, said Simpson is right that saving the fish would be a benefit to the region.

“We will support Congressman Simpson’s initiative and we respect the courage and vision he is showing the region,” he said. “This is an opportunity for multiple regional interests to align with a better future for the Northwest; river restoration and salmon recovery; local and regional economic investment and infrastructure improvement; and long-term legal resolution and certainty.”

Kat Brigham, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, called Simpson’s concept “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set aside past differences and chart a new course for the survival of the Columbia River Basin — including salmon, farmers and many others.”

Simpson introduced his plan in February as a concept. It has been praised by tribes, angling groups and conservation organizations. Agriculture groups, representatives from ports and the shipping industry, and many local governments have panned the proposal.

Simpson has not translated the idea into legislation but has targeted President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure package as a possible vehicle. However, none of the powerful Democratic members of the Pacific Northwest’s congressional delegation have stepped forward to help him advance the idea and several prominent Republicans have pledged to fight it.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.