The preamble was not to introduce you to a new theme, but to keep you thinking about those real and troubling issues as they pertain to any future recovery of the wild salmon and steelhead of the Snake. Though this dispatch might take in every topic of concern.
Idaho's rivers provide the last great hope for these fish to ultimately restore themselves, but the political and financial outlook from a government standpoint in either state or federal situation is bleak. The number of people truly interested in having strong runs of salmon and steelhead is constantly diminishing and they are further diluted by the fact that many people fail to see the difference between wild and hatchery fish runs. This is compounded by the fact that the people are not being told just how many wild/natural origin fish are returning and instead are treated to a total number that is largely made up of hatchery fish, with the exception of steelhead counts. I know it seems ludicrous to think that one day we may also have the possibility that mankind no longer can afford to dump hundreds of millions of fish into the rivers, but that day is closer than we think if we cannot right the financial ship. Sadly, though, before that dark day, a darker day will arrive where we will have lost our wild salmon and wild steelhead of the Snake River if we do not embrace a more diverse energy portfolio.
I'm troubled by the fact that our Idaho government is moving toward creating more water storage behind new dams in some false hope that they can replicate something akin to a free flowing river at a higher elevation throughout the system. I don't see any movement toward a solution. I read a lot about a "solutions table," but the only people calling for that are salmon advocates. I know Sen. Jim Risch had once said he would facilitate such a table to find an agreement that would lead to sustainable and fishable runs of wild salmon and steelhead, but I haven't seen any movement forward on that front from him or his office.
I see politicians are more than happy to show up for salmon photo ops, especially at Redfish Lake, but I don't see those same politicians doing anything to follow up or anything that would be a substantial step forward for real wild salmon and wild steelhead recovery.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is holding a wildlife summit in August, but sadly that summit will not allow the participants to address one of the most important issues at hand and that is funding for whatever strategy they come up with as it is not news to tell you that departments such as that are run on user fees (hunting, fishing licenses) and those numbers are on a downward line over time. My solution to that problem would never fly in the current Idaho political makeup and that would be since we all own the fish and wildlife in trust everyone should be involved in the funding. I would wish that Idaho and frankly all states would adopt a funding mechanism more closely associated with Missouri's Conservation Department funding system. In the 1970s, Missouri voters passed an 1/8 cent sales tax that went toward the Missouri Department of Conservation. At the time it was done the money was to be used for the department to acquire lands and access points for the state's wildlife enthusiasts, hunters and anglers (of course hunters and anglers were the primary reason for its passage). It got renewed again while I lived there, I don't remember the year. What that created was the best funded conservation department in the nation and if you go to Missouri you can see that they really did a good job with that new source of funding and as a bonus all citizens are invested in the future of fish and wildlife endeavors.
If Idaho doesn't figure out a way to broaden the base of who pays for what in regards to its fish and wildlife (which are two of the most important aspects of life in Idaho) the department will slowly be cannibalized by a series of legislature moves that will always opt for the argument of some other government function over that which is in place to protect our natural heritage. These arguments will come up one by one and in that scenario, by in large, our fish and wildlife will lose out to what will be arguments boiled down to humans vs. something in nature. Humans almost always win that argument politically speaking. Taking this line of thinking farther down the rabbit hole, it is not out of the question that eventually funding dries up for all of these salmon hatcheries. We will have already lost our wild fish, though some remnants may still remain, at this point and then with ever dwindling numbers of anglers to protest the loss of our natural heritage, I can see a day where we are just too broke to fund the false panacea of hatchery fish and fisheries augmented by hatcheries. Couple that with the very real possibility that at some point before dams on the lower Snake River are breached that we will have a Republican controlled house and senate and one sitting in the White House and you have a recipe for the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and with it the obligation to pay for salmon and steelhead mitigation. That's a dim future (no offense Republicans, but your recent shift into chaosville doesn't bode well for sanity nor wild salmon, what happened to the days when at least some of you made some sense?). Seriously, you guys used to get my vote more times than not, I can't say that has been the case recently and I didn't change. Well, OK, I did change, I have enough gray hair now to officially look old. Some say distinguished, but that's a load of crap.
It is further dimmed by our reluctance to embrace a more robust and diverse energy portfolio (pardon the pun). I am troubled by Idaho Power's two-year assault on wind power, actually it is a two-year assault on the federal legislation that forces the monopoly to buy wind power, but in the end it really is an assault on wind power. Giving Idaho Power credit, they may not think it an assault on wind power (even though their ads have come right out against wind power "wind power we love you, but you are never there when we need you" and "wind you are costing us a fortune" or something to that effect have been the slogans they have been running in ads and there aren't that many people who have recognized the nuance) and rather just an assault on their forced buying of what they believe is a product that has a false price point. Still, people see those ads and they think, wind power is a pipe dream. People see large, government subsidized, solar companies go bust and they simply think solar energy is a pipe dream. No one realizes that oil, gas and coal got the same subsidies when they were new energy sources. No one realizes that oil, gas and coal still get huge subsidies that they admit they don't need anymore, but still they get them. We don't complain about these things because these are "proven" sources of energy with which everyone is familiar (mercury, carbon dioxide and other air pollution not withstanding). We have got to embrace wind power and solar energy, and we have to look into harnessing the vast and never-ending power of the ocean waves and we have got to get away from our almost total dependence on fossil fuels and we have to realize that this doubling down on fossil fuels that we are seeing is simply businesses trying to maximize their profit before they run out of product (which will someday happen, especially with China and India's new buying splurge in this market). I see there could be some thought by Idaho Power that there is a silver lining to their fight to end their being forced to buy wind energy (and I do not feel sorry for them that a monopoly be forced to buy something at a price of the seller's choosing, pot meet kettle). The problem in utilities fighting this federal mandate for wind energy producers is that there may be enough people listening who have the power to get rid of the mandate that says they have to buy the wind power (and that is a subsidy, it guarantees a market for wind energy producers which isn't necessarily a bad thing, actually it has allowed wind energy production to greatly increase, which is the point of energy subsidies--money or the promise of money to put more energy on the market). If they get rid of the mandate, I wonder if the entire wind energy movement will die off from a lack of buying customers. Idaho Power loves its hydropower and obviously doesn't mind that its Hells Canyon Dam complex of dams cut off and killed off the remnants of what once were great wild salmon and steelhead runs and it obviously doesn't mind paying the small price of mitigating for that. If given the choice, Idaho Power would double down on dams and never buy wind energy again. That's how I see it, because I see it from human nature and they aren't going to buy wind energy unless it is both available on demand and cheaper than other sources and that's why this law they are fighting juxtaposed with the plight of wild salmon and steelhead creates the need for choices to be laid at the feet of the people either through ballot or wallet. People who went to business school generally have the belief that people vote with their wallet and only want the cheapest product (they may weigh in maintenance and performance into that cost equation, but ultimately they want the cheapest solution) therefore we as salmon advocates must show everyone the true cost of ensuring wild salmon and wild steelhead extinction and the true value of restored fisheries in order for any correct decision to be made by people's wallets or at the ballot box. The truth is there is no such thing as a green energy source, every energy source has some negative effect on the environment, dams kill fish and destroy by inundation habitat for other wild creatures and plants, wind turbines kill birds that fly into them, fossil fuels pollute and the extraction can be the worst scar on earth as in mountain top removal and the tar sands mess. I believe at this point it is a safe bet to say that dams have had a much more devastating effect on their victims than have wind turbines in that dams have and continue to make populations of fish go extinct. I'm not saying wind is the answer, but it is part of the answer and we have to start evaluating our dams for their true cost and remove some of them so that we can say to our children, "look what we have left for you to responsibly care for in trust for your children, wild fish, wild animals and the wild rivers and wild lands they need to prosper." Instead of what we might have to say to them, "I am very sorry, we were extremely selfish and have destroyed or consumed everything that was our shared natural heritage."
The fate of wild salmon and wild steelhead of the Snake River Basin are also in jeopardy over a crazy idea that Lewiston, Idaho can be a seaport. The waterway portion of that "seaport" has been losing money and work share since the early 1990s and a recent fight between unions at the Port of Portland is only strengthening the other two facets of the Lewiston Port's business model, which are railroad and trucking, which are holding steady or growing as the barging aspect keeps dwindling due to many more factors than just a union fight in Portland, but more due to a better port for overseas shipping in Tacoma where rail and trucks are a better option for ag interests in the Palouse than barging.
Finally, and I don't want to repeat myself (who am I kidding, I've found a new way to say breach the dams with every dispatch) anyway, I want to once again point out the difference between hatchery fish and wild fish. Hatchery fish are essentially a homogenized strain of genetics, this is done because once you find something that "works" you go with that. Kind of like how corn used to have thousands of varieties with various nutrients, but we found we could grow the high sugar corn best and now that is just about the only corn you can find being grown anymore. It is rare to see those multi-colored ears of corn anymore, remember those? The same thing goes for hatchery fish, we have found various gene pool mixes that are best in the hatchery model and we are replicating. Wild fish, or I should say the strength of wild salmonid populations, is not that they found one strain of genes that worked best, but that they found the right genetic makeup for the various rivers they colonized over the past hundreds of thousands of years. They mixed with different populations and from that they had a diverse genetic makeup that allowed the species as a whole to survive various threats. We can't replicate that in a hatchery and even if we could, we can't stop the negative effects of our nurturing (think silver spoon in hand or fin) on those fish when we ultimately set them free into the wild. We know that when we try to supplement our rivers with hatchery origin fish allowed to spawn in the wild that they fail to reproduce as well as their wild cousins. Their fecundity rates drop off some 40-70 percent depending on the study and the most thorough of those studies said 70 percent within the first generation. These hatchery fish can then pollute the wild gene pool and we can lose whole generations of fish in a short amount of time. Sure, there isn't much difference in a 36-inch hatchery Chinook and a 36-inch wild Chinook tugging on the end of an angler's line (there is but most don't notice that), but in terms of which of those fish is more likely to ensure you get the same fishing experience again in a couple of years, it is the wild fish that gives you that best chance even though the hatchery fish will be forced into a likely successful spawn (albeit in a bucket and then a cooler and then an incubator and then a concrete runway).
I think with our financial situation that pretty soon we are going to begin questioning all the things we do (actually we already are) in order to save these fish and society might just decide they'd rather not upset the apple cart and take whatever energy source they are force fed by their neighborhood monopoly and the salmon be damned instead of just dammed, which is bad enough.
I've always been of the mind that if a solution exists you pursue it and a solution does exist and that solution involves the breaching of four lower Snake River dams, expanding our energy portfolio creating a pie chart that more closely resembles a pie you would cut in equal pieces rather than what we have now, and by doing so we allow our wild fish to restore themselves. Sure, we have some habitat restorations that we need to do and we also need to ban various gold dredging practices and also end once and for all the idea that it is OK to ruin a salmon and steelhead stream so somebody can satisfy their gold fever. A solution exists to our wild salmon and wild steelhead being endangered, but we haven't pursued it. What would you rather be known for? The last generation to see wild salmon and steelhead swimming in the Snake River Basin (do nothing and that will be what we are known for) or the generation that saved the wild salmon and wild steelhead of the Snake River Basin? I know what I'd rather be known for and I hope you and I are on the same page. A solution exists and it is not Draconian and in fact it will lead us all to a better life and that better life will have sustainable and fishable runs of wild salmon and wild steelhead, but our lives will be improved well beyond that as well, if you can imagine.