Congressman Mike Simpson has a generous amount of support for his idea to breach the the four Lower Snake River dams in the quest to save salmon, but not from Idaho Republicans – the crowd that he is trying to convince.
Simpson’s fan club on the issue includes Democrats, environmental coalitions, several editorial writers and Rocky Barker – a longtime environmental writer who I think of as the “godfather” of dam breaching. During his time with the Idaho Statesman in the 1990s, Rocky led the way for the newspaper’s nationally acclaimed special section on dam breaching that practically served as a bible for the salmon advocates.
The special section had all the bases covered, from the science behind dam breaching to the economic benefits of salmon recovery – the same principles that are behind Simpson’s idea. Despite those laudable efforts by Barker and the Statesman’s staff, Republicans in power remain opposed to breaching.
That is, with the exception of Simpson, who is trying to end the salmon wars and litigation that have had a stranglehold on the Northwest economy for almost 30 years. He’s asking stakeholders “what if” the dams were removed and how they could be kept whole. He’s also discussing concepts that would pay for replacement power and other economic projects. Even with all that, Simpson says he can’t guarantee that breaching is the magic answer for saving the fish – he’s certain that salmon eventually would become extinct without breaching.
As Rocky would tell me, the science backs Simpson. Yet, leading Republicans are rejecting Simpson’s ideas, looking elsewhere for a silver bullet – something that has not surfaced in at least three decades of debate.
“Breaching the dams would have devastating impacts on Idahoans and vital segments of Idaho’s economy,” said Gov. Brad Little. “We must continue to find creative consensus-based solutions that help salmon thrive and foster a strong Idaho’s economy.”
Little has a salmon working group in place that is searching for pragmatic solutions to the salmon issue. He also signed an agreement with governors of neighboring states to advance the shared goal of salmon recovery.
Something might come from those efforts, but so far it has been crickets.
The governor isn’t the only one weighing in on Simpson’s idea. House Speaker Scott Bedke of Oakley and Sen. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville are among those who have written opinion pieces opposing breaching and the Idaho Legislature passed a memorial expressing opposition to breaching.
Congressman Russ Fulcher also opposes Simpson’s plan, which is understandable considering that the Port of Lewiston is part of Fulcher’s First District. To a lot of folks in that region, “breaching” is a four-letter word.
“Those dams were put in place decades ago, at a high expense, for a reason. It’s for power generation for the northwest, transportations for the ports. It’s for irrigation that our agriculture community depends on,” Fulcher said. “Here’s the kicker. Even Mike will say we don’t know for sure if we take them out that salmon will be saved.”
In general, Fulcher says, it’s a gamble that is not worth taking.
But as Fulcher explains, the disagreement over breaching does not signal a rift with Idaho’s two representatives. Simpson understands Fulcher’s position and who he represents. The Port of Lewiston is as sacred to Fulcher as the Idaho National Laboratory is to Simpson.
“When I talk with people about this, I tell them they should talk with Mike because he has a thoughtful and legitimate position on the issue. And he has legitimate counters to all the arguments on the other side. We just happen to disagree,” Fulcher said.
“I never will say anything disparaging about him, or his plan. I just try to make the case of why I disagree with it … and that’s the way it ought to be.”
It’s nice to know that civility exists within our congressional delegation. But for the Idaho Republicans who are opposed to breaching, they can always look on the bright side.
At least Simpson didn’t vote to impeach Donald Trump.
Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org