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Amid mounting opposition to Rep. Mike Simpson's plan to save Snake River salmon, supporters of dam removal hope for bipartisan backing in Congress

Amid mounting opposition to Rep. Mike Simpson's plan to save Snake River salmon, supporters of dam removal hope for bipartisan backing in Congress

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Little Goose

The Little Goose Dam, pictured here, is one of four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington pitched for breaching as part of a U.S. Representative's plan to save Northwest salmon

WASHINGTON — When Congress returns to the Capitol next week after a two-week recess, the question on everyone’s mind will be what is included in the more than $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs bill Democrats are crafting.

Supporters of Rep. Mike Simpson’s ambitious proposal to save Idaho’s dwindling salmon runs hope Democrats back the Idaho Republican’s bid to include $33.5 billion in the package to breach the four lower Snake River dams and replace the benefits they provide.

But the ambitious proposal — which lays out a grand compromise that would end the Northwest’s decadeslong “salmon wars” — has drawn criticism seemingly from all sides, including farmers, shippers and even a subset of environmentalist groups.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the influential Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said she doesn’t expect Simpson’s plan to be part of the legislation so long as the issue remains so contentious.

“The things that are going to get funded are things that people have identified and have worked to build support (for) from the bottom up,” Cantwell said in a March 31 interview with The Spokesman-Review. “What gets jettisoned first are things that don’t have a lot of unanimity across a wide section of people. A lot of things end up falling off the table because there’s just not wide support, and people don’t have time for things that aren’t totally supported.”

Simpson, who represents roughly the eastern half of Idaho, has continued talking with anyone who will listen and remains hopeful his proposal could be incorporated into the sweeping legislation based on the “American Jobs Plan” President Joe Biden unveiled March 31, spokeswoman Nikki Wallace said.

“We believe the details of the Biden plan will become more clear in the coming months, and it is too early to make a determination of what will be included in the final bill,” Wallace wrote in an email. “Congressman Simpson has been traveling though his district meeting with elected officials, stakeholders and constituents to discuss the details and hear their concerns and suggestions. His plan would be to next incorporate the feedback he is receiving where possible.”

Simpson’s concept, dubbed “the Columbia Basin Initiative,” proposes removing the earthen portions of four dams — a move conservationists say is necessary to preserve salmon in the Snake River — while making all the regional stakeholders whole. Most of the proposed $33.5 billion would replace the power the dams generate, the barging capacity they provide between the Tri-Cities and Lewiston, irrigation and other benefits.

Justin Hayes, executive director of the nonprofit Idaho Conservation League, said Simpson’s proposal “offers a rare opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to come together and support the priorities that many folks have said are the region’s priorities, the nation’s priorities, right now.”

“There is interest and energy in the region in addressing all of those stated goals — climate, the environment, jobs, the economy, tribal justice — and the Simpson proposal captures all of those things,” Hayes said. “This is a very important issue that people in the region say they want to resolve, and here is the opportunity to resolve it, so let’s all step forward together.”

But including the Idaho Republican’s proposal in the infrastructure package would require the support of Democrats, who hold narrow majorities in both the House and Senate. So far, responses from key congressional Democrats — including Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation Committee — have been muted.

Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said the relative silence of those Democrats doesn’t seal the fate of Simpson’s proposal, which he called “a regionally balanced vision of a better, smarter future for the entire Northwest.”

“The Simpson proposal is not stuck,” he said in a statement. “Tragically what is stuck are the salmon, many of which are on a trajectory to extinction.”

Wheeler said the Nez Perce Tribe has been engaged with the Biden administration and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, an organization that includes 57 tribal governments in the region. Simpson’s proposal, he said, is “moving through multiple conversations, most of which are not occurring in public view,” and the reticence of key lawmakers is “part of a normal sequencing for a comprehensive proposal like this.”

Other Northwest tribes have also backed the plan, which includes provisions to help restore salmon, steelhead and lamprey in other parts of the Columbia Basin. Delano Saluskin, chairman of the tribal council of the Yakama Nation, raised the issue with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff during Emhoff’s visit to Yakima County on Tuesday.

“We are fish people,” Saluskin said to Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, as reported by the Tri-City Herald. “We live off fish. We honor the fish in our first foods ceremony. And if we don’t do something now we are all going to be competing to catch that last salmon.”

Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Council, said the Spokane Tribe supports Simpson’s proposal but does not plan to lobby Washington lawmakers before seeing more specifics.

“The tribe has supported the concept, but we have not gone to promoting any legislation to our legislators, because it’s still a concept and we want to see what actually gets put into the legislation,” Evans said. “We believe in a holistic approach to the whole Columbia River system, which in our opinion should include consideration of (fish) passage above Chief Joseph and (Grand) Coulee dams.”

Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director for the nonprofit Save Our Wild Salmon, said pressure is mounting on the region’s congressional Democrats.

“While we haven’t seen another member of Congress step forward right now, I know for a fact that they are hearing from their constituents that they want them to act,” Mace said. “I think that the potential for that proposal in some fashion to be put in a bill is still entirely possible, and it’s on our senators — Cantwell, Murray and others — to help that happen. If they don’t like Simpson’s proposal, what is their answer? What proposal are they going to put forward?”

Simpson’s plan would give agriculture a bigger role in watershed improvement and transfer fish management responsibility from the Bonneville Power Administration to a joint council of states and tribes.

It also includes a 35-year moratorium on lawsuits that would end costly litigation over the dams’ environmental impact, a provision that prompted a group of more than a dozen Northwest environmental groups to oppose the plan in a March 16 letter to Cantwell, Murray, Wyden and Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Hayes, whose organization supports Simpson’s plan, said he understands the concerns those environmental groups have about giving up the main tool — litigation — they have relied on for decades in their efforts to protect salmon.

“I think it’s a challenge for people to think about compromise, where they know with great certainty the things they are fearful of losing, but they may not know yet what things they will be gaining,” Hayes said. “Simpson’s proposal is admittedly pretty lean on details, and that leaves you the opportunity to only see the things that will be taken from you.”

“Until you actually see how it would all work, I think it’s a very reasonable position to fear that the things you care about will be lost.”

While Cantwell has not supported Simpson’s proposal, she said she expects components of it will be included in the infrastructure package.

“Can we do more to support next-generation nuclear power? OK, that might be on the table,” she said. “Is there something we can be doing to invest more in salmon habitat and restoration? That might be on the table. Or someone might say, ‘Is there more we can do on alternative transportation, to drive down the costs?’ “

In a March 23 virtual event hosted by the City Club of Boise, Simpson acknowledged the possibility that the infrastructure bill in Congress could serve to fund parts of his proposal even if other elements would need to be hammered out in subsequent legislation.

“I don’t think diversifying our energy is a bad idea,” Cantwell said, “so there could be lots of things in there on diversifying our energy. We do think that we need to put more investments into salmon in general, and my guess is we’ll try to address some of those habitat issues in this legislation as well, particularly as you build new transportation projects.”

“That’s where a consensus is going to be, and so those are the things that could get funded.”

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