Toby Wyatt’s point isn’t so much the letter he co-signed to Gov. Brad Little last week — as it is how much restraint went toward waiting to send it.

Wyatt, a Lewiston salmon and steelhead outfitter, had avoided tweaking his neighbors about breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River. But as depleted fish numbers led to closed steelhead seasons on the Clearwater River and part of the Snake River, Wyatt felt his options dwindling down to a choice: Either it’s the dams or it’s us.

“Dread is on the doorstep of our communities,” wrote Wyatt, president of the Clearwater chapter of the Idaho River Community Alliance, and Roy Akins, who heads the Riggins chapter of the river community group. “The dread has made us willing to discuss any and every remedy to bring health back to our communities.”

Dread is a strong word but it’s apt. Wyatt and his counterparts face a profound predicament.

Conservationists can talk about the ecological significance of these fish. But they’ll continue to work out of offices and field stations across the state, fish or no.

Indian tribes can point out their cultural and economic links to these fish runs.

Wyatt and Akins add another dimension — their jobs and those that depend on their businesses.

“Really, there is not much left of it; it’s all gone anyway. The only place I have a good, viable business now is when I go to other areas. Our home area, which used to be money in the bank, is pretty well gone,” Wyatt told the Tribune’s Eric Barker. “They used to say ‘fish and dams; we can have both,’ remember that? It ain’t true, man. You either have the dams or you have the fish. In the long scheme of things, they can’t both be there.”

In essence, if the fish disappear, so does their way of making a living.

That same dire fate does not face people on the other side of the fish vs. dams equation. No one is saying agricultural producers would be without a way to ship their goods to the West Coast if navigation ended. No one is saying there aren’t alternative ways to generate electricity if the dams no longer produce hydropower.

Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said as much last spring at an Andrus Center conference on fish, energy and dams when he raised his “what if” questions about a future without the dams.

“We fail to see how a discussion about what could be done to support alternative transportation to get their products to market is equivalent to our situation,” Wyatt and Akins wrote. “Their grandstanding in the face of our communities’ pain is detestable, if not just dishonest.”

If that was meant to sway the governor, it didn’t work — at least not yet.

At the same Andrus Center conference where Simpson pledged to work toward restoring healthy fish runs, Little announced the formation of his own Salmon Work Group. It could not have a more varied composition of players and points of view — irrigators, water lawyers, utilities, shippers, recreationists, agriculture, Indian tribes and conservationists. That big table approach represents a genuine opportunity toward forging a new strategy — especially if it can decide whether the region faces the choice Wyatt describes between fish and dams.

Then Little applied the blinders. Dam breaching? Forget it.

“Helping salmon thrive and fostering a strong Idaho economy that produces good jobs are not mutually exclusive,” replied Little in a statement his office issued Friday. “I remain opposed to dam breaching. I have directed my Salmon Work Group to come up with pragmatic, consensus-based solutions that promote healthy salmon populations and thriving river communities in Idaho, and not to fixate on a single divisive issue that will only serve to stall the work group’s progress.”

Pragmatic?

Consensus-based?

Healthy salmon populations?

Thriving river communities?

How is any of that possible if the work group won’t even consider what Wyatt and Akins have to say?

It makes you wonder how the governor plans to respond when the next Toby Wyatt breaks his silence.— M.T.

Recommended for you