Recently, the Columbia Insight, an independent journal focussed on environmental issues in the Columbia River Basin, interviewed Congressman Mike Simpson. You may recall that in early February, Rep. Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, released a comprehensive plan to save Snake River Salmon. That plan surprised just about everyone. No other Snake River salmon development has had so much potential. The endless lawsuits haven’t worked, and numbers of wild Snake River salmon and steelhead continue to decline. Something had to give. Simpson’s Energy and Salmon concept is the result of years and over 300 meetings between stakeholders to form the first collaborative opportunity to remove the dams and save the river’s migratory fish.
Here are highlights from this informative and transparent interview:
CI: What’s surprised you about the reaction?
MS: What’s really been interesting is seeing that the people who are opposed to this proposal tend to focus on only one aspect of the plan: dam removal. That’s all they hear, and then they shut down.
My staff and I, we’ve been working on this plan for over three years and have had more than 300 different meetings about it, so we’ve heard a lot of different points of view. And we’ve had a lot of discussions and collaborative groups on these issues in the region over the past 25 to 30 years. Every collaborative group over that time has come up with nice ideas that everybody can agree on: increasing the numbers of salmon, clean renewable energy, better efficiency, improving habitats, etc. But when it comes down to breaching the dams themselves, the groups break apart and they just can’t go any further. Fundamentally, the people who are opposed to breaching the dams are used to doing things a certain way, and just don’t want to change what they’re doing.
“OK then,” I said, “if you don’t like breaching the dams and still want to save the salmon, then tell me what your plan is?” And then there’s nothing—because everything else we’ve tried for the past 25 to 30 years simply doesn’t work. We’ve already spent $17 billion on fish recovery and salmon and steelhead numbers here have only gotten worse, to the point where they’re on a clear path to extinction. Are we going to spend $20 billion more over the next 30 years just to have them go extinct anyway?
CI: Some environmental groups have been supportive of your plan—American Rivers in particular released a statement calling it “bold,” “groundbreaking” and “potentially transformational” for the Pacific Northwest. Others have been more cautious, surprised to hear an environmental issue supported by a conservative Republican. Is that unfair?
MS: Well, most people live in Idaho because we love our environment—and that’s really true all across the Pacific Northwest. Yes, I’m conservative, and I also value conservation.
The salmon are going extinct. There’s just no way around that. We have to do something about it. To me, this proposal isn’t about the impact that it has on us today. It’s what do we want the Pacific Northwest to look like in the next 30, 40, 50 years? The decisions we make today will have an enormous impact on the entire region 50 years from now.
I don’t want our grandchildren someday to say, “Why do you call it the Salmon River? There are no salmon here.”
CI: Right now this plan is still a concept, as you call it. What are the next steps to get this hammered into actual legislation that can be put before committees and eventually onto the floor for a vote?
MS: Well, now that a lot of different people are looking at the concept and thinking about it, the next step is that we have to listen to their different perspectives. We have to talk with them about what the plan does and doesn’t do, answer their questions and take their concerns into consideration before drafting legislation. But that needs to happen now. We don’t have a lot of time. I’d like to see actual legislation happen later this year.