Rep. Mike Simpson challenged some of the harshest critics of his plan to save Snake River salmon and steelhead to show their hands Thursday.

The Republican representing Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District was speaking at a forum Thursday hosted by the Andrus Center for Public Policy. It came a little more than two years after a speech Simpson made at an Andrus Center conference in which he foreshadowed his support for breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

In 2019, Simpson said he intended to save Idaho’s threatened and endangered fish runs and was asking “what if” questions of regional stakeholders. Those questions were centered on a future without Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams.

He continued asking those questions over most of the next two years. Then in February, the conservative Republican unveiled his $33 billion “concept” that called for the dams to be breached and for massive investments to be made to replace lost hydropower generation, shore up the financially challenged Bonneville Power Administration, help farmers get their grain to overseas markets via trains instead of barges, and to aid communities like Lewiston and Clarkston and the Tri-Cities in Washington in adjusting to life without slackwater.

Since then, he has weathered attacks, many from fellow Republicans like Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rogers, of Washington, who recently charged that he plotted secretly with Oregon Democrats to advance his idea. Others have said breaching the dams won’t work, or will devastate agriculture and ruin rural economies.

On Thursday, Simpson sought their ideas.

“What I have asked everyone I have talked to, whether it was Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers or others in the delegation or any user group, if you’ve got alternatives that will work, let me know, tell me about them, I’m interested in hearing them,” he said. “So far it’s just been silence.”

Newhouse spoke before Simpson at the “Energy, Salmon, Agriculture and Community: Revisited” virtual forum, hosted by the Andrus Center, and did offer some ideas. But first he laundered a long list of reasons he believes salmon and steelhead numbers have declined that have nothing to do with the lower Snake River dams. He talked about efforts by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in the 1940s to rid the Stanley basin of sockeye salmon, overfishing in the 1800s and dams in Idaho that lack fish ladders.

His idea for saving the fish: stay the course. Newhouse insisted that federal plans authored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working despite a five-year string of poor returns, and that salmon and dams can “coexist.”

“Let’s stop reinventing the wheel and instead implement the plans developed and allow them to actually demonstrate progress,” he said.

“Why do we want to take a step backward endangering our entire economic engine we have in the Pacific Northwest, and other parts of the country are so envious (that) we have and provides us with so many positive things? Why would we want to endanger that and not move forward with the ability of the fish and the dams to coexist?”

Simpson countered that without dam breaching, he believes Snake River salmon and steelhead will disappear. But he also believes before that happens, draconian measures, without mitigation, will be ordered by federal judges. He called it a train wreck that political leaders ought to be trying to prevent.

“Do we in the Pacific Northwest want to accept this challenge and chart our own future, or do we want someone else to chart our future for us, probably someone in a black robe?”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the only member of Congress to publicly engage with Simpson, also spoke at the forum. While the Democrat from Portland, Ore., hasn’t fully backed Simpson’s concept, he sees it as a “bold vision” and an important discussion point. Blumenauer has reservations about provisions of the plan that call for a moratorium on lawsuits related to fish and dams and the automatic extension of operating licenses for many of the dams in the region. Even so, he said he’s willing to talk with his conservative colleague to further fish recovery efforts and hopes others will join the conversation.

“I think that is what the next phase of this will be — looking at the hard questions and having people in the Pacific Northwest engage one another, with the tribes, with agriculture, transportation, with other units of government,” he said. “Let’s dive in and do it rather than pretend somehow this is going to go away if we just spend a little more money on fish recovery and we battle a little bit over the flow of river water.”

Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said Northwest tribes are united in support of Simpson’s desire to save the fish and restore the lower Snake River.

Tribal scientists recently released work showing wild spring chinook and steelhead populations in the Snake River Basin are trending toward extinction.

“We have seen the science and what it says and we have the technology to change. It’s up to us to have that honest conversation and speak the truth and build a better future for the Pacific Northwest. That is why we are speaking here today, to speak for a species that can’t speak for itself.”

Simpson had hoped his plan would be inserted into a federal infrastructure package that is starting to take shape in Congress. On Thursday he said his concept, which has yet to attract any other congressional backers, is not ready to be written into legislation, but he is pushing for funding nonetheless.

“I’m trying to get the resources into the infrastructure bill so it can be put aside in the Columbia Basin Initiative and held there — it can’t be used — until we come to a conclusion in the Pacific Northwest of what we are going to do, and that is going to take some time. It might actually take a year or two to write a bill, but we need to have these conversations in the Pacific Northwest and we need to have honest conversations.”

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