Editor’s  note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years  ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was  the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in  Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.

Indian Tribes bring an admirable and necessary quality to conservation: their long view.

Last week Rocky Barker had a nice story in the Idaho Statesman on the May 28 release of salmon into the Owyhee River, the first salmon in that river since 1928.   Credit goes to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe, from whom salmon were taken decades ago by dams, built by Idaho Power and others without salmon passage. The salmon released are hatchery-origin fish, and only Sho-Pai members can fish for them. A friend who works for the Upper Snake River Tribes said the ceremony was very moving. I don’t know if any members old enough to remember the past salmon runs were present, but Tribal people have a way of keeping their past alive in their present day that newcomers often lack. (For example, we forget that we are newcomers.)

This is step one for the Shoshone-Paiute. Their goal is to restore naturally spawning salmon in the Owyhee, Bruneau and other streams above the Hells Canyon dams, and I bet they will keep at it until they succeed.* Shamefully, Idaho Power and the State of Idaho oppose making an experimental restoration program a condition of Idaho Power’s license to operate the Hells Canyon dams on public waters. And federal agencies that, given their trusteeship responsibility to Indian Tribes, ought to be energetically insisting on this condition are silent or dancing down the middle.

Work to restore salmon above impassable dams is picking up steam, led mainly by Indian Tribes. The Upper Snake Tribes (and the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, American Rivers and the State of Oregon) support reintroduction above Hells Canyon. The Nez Perce Tribe plans over time to restore salmon above Dworshak Dam on the North Fork Clearwater. When he was in Congress, Walt Minnick started planning an initiative to restore salmon to the Boise and Payette Rivers, but lost his seat before he could move it. I’m aware of one salmon passage project now in operation at a previously impassable dam, Pelton Dam on Oregon’s Deschutes River.

The largest current effort is by the Upper Columbia United Tribes, which represents the Couer d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai, and Spokane Tribes, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. All lost salmon to Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams, both federal dams. UCUT has developed a detailed experimental program to restore salmon above Grand Coulee, won support to get started from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, allied with First Nations in Canada’s Columbia Basin to jointly seek it, and asked the Bonneville Power Administration for resources to begin work. BPA is slow walking in response, since God forbid BPA customers should pay a tiny bit closer to the real, full costs of "cheap hydroelectricity."

The technical challenges are large, but the Tribes think they can be met. The biggest is getting juvenile salmon below the dams on their ocean-bound migration. I hope non-Indians resist temptation to spurn use of hatchery stock, or use of "unnatural" out-of-river technologies. Robust scientific debate and evaluation is vital in these programs, but as a matter of law and historical justice the affected Tribes should get to try it, and we who have benefited from "cheap hydro" for so long should pay most of the dollar costs.

Decades may pass before these projects bear fruit, but bravo to Tribes for looking that far ahead, weathering blinkered opposition from utilities and dam agencies, and keeping on as long as it takes.

* Salmon were once abundant in northern Nevada, in the Owyhee, Bruneau, and Salmon Falls Creek. In 2010 Alissa Praggastis and Jack Williams (both then working for Trout Unlimited, as Jack still does) co-authored a good retrospect, "Salmon’s Presence in Nevada’s Past," which appeared in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2013. Try to find it on the web, but if you can’t I’d be happy to email you a copy.

– Pat Ford