A group of tribal leaders from the Pacific Northwest is calling on the region’s congressional delegation and President Joe Biden to breach the four lower Snake River dams.

In a letter to Biden and members of Congress from Idaho, Washington and Oregon, the 11 leaders, under the umbrella of the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance, say breaching the dams is needed to avoid extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead and to honor treaties between tribes and the federal government.

River of Change

“Congress and the president must act boldly and urgently to remove the lower Snake River dams and put into place a permanent solution to fix this crisis before it passes a point of no return,” they wrote.

The letter was signed by members of the Yakama and Lummi nations, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and the Tulalip, Swinomish and Makah tribes. The signers do not necessarily represent the official position of their tribal governments.

Absent from the list were representatives from the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock tribes of Idaho that have treaty rights on the Snake River and its tributaries. Both tribes have endorsed Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s proposal to breach the four lower Snake River dams, and the Nez Perce have long been involved in a legal battle over the dams and their effect on salmon and steelhead. The letter also lacked representation from the Warm Springs Tribe of Oregon.

The dams produce hydropower and allow tug-and-barge transportation between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities. But the concrete, steel and earthen structures also harm juvenile fish on their downstream journey to the Pacific Ocean, despite including fish ladders. They are blamed as one of the top causes of Snake River salmon and steelhead landing on the Endangered Species Act.

Many of the tribes in the Columbia Basin and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest signed treaties with the federal government that reserved their rights to fish in “usual and accustomed” places. If salmon and steelhead are allowed to go extinct, the federal government will not be meeting the terms of the treaties, they argue.

“Salmon are inseparable from who we are. We exist because salmon exist. They are our food, ceremony, our culture and the very heart of our economy and lifeway,” the letter to Biden and Congress states. “Even as our ancestors’ lives and homeland were threatened, they made sure to protect within the treaties our ancestral salmon lifeway. Those treaties were promises made by the United States government. Those promises must be kept.”

They said they can’t tolerate more delays from the federal government, and while they appreciate a collaborative process being led by the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana aimed at finding solutions to declining salmon runs, “the time for talk has long passed.”

The letter doesn’t mention the recent $33 billion proposal from Simpson that would breach the dams and mitigate affected communities and industries. Simpson’s effort is mentioned in an accompanying news release. The alliance was formed to advocate for the importance of restoration of the lower Snake River and salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

“The Northwest delegation must engage now to ensure a future where salmon are once again abundant,” said Don Sampson of the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance in the news release. “What we cannot do is wait. Waiting is death. It is our sacred obligation to preserve these salmon and our ways of life.”

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