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.

To assess the opportunity presented by the U.S. District Court’s powerful ruling this May in the long-running salmon-and-dams case, I’ll post two blogs  that will enact a tension: necessary patience with the human dimension, against sharpening urgency for Snake River salmon.

Judge Michael Simon’s ruling could be leveraged into decisive progress to restore one-eighth of the Snake River, 140 of its 1,078 miles, and create conditions for Snake River salmon and steelhead to restore themselves. It won’t be easy, the salmon/dams equation is not easy, but it could be done. Given the magnitude of what will be gained and of the resistance that’s a workable place to be.

Judge Simon ordered a five-year span of analyses and decisions:

  • a biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act for operation of the federal dam system, due in December 2018; and
  • an environmental impact statement assessing major changes in that dam system, and deciding which if any to make, by March 2021.

NOAA Fisheries (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) will run the first process and three federal dam agencies the second. The second is more important, but the first will set vital legal and scientific standards for the second. The agencies in charge have failed six times in 16 years to develop a lawful salmon-and-dams strategy. Their failure is deliberate and systemic.

Over this same span will come the third, most important product: a new calibration of popular wishes and political will on the Columbia-Snake salmon and dams equation. I think the full continuum of outcomes is open: backward shuffle, decisive progress, or any point between. So what can Idaho, and Idaho conservation, do to push the outcome salmon and the river’s way?

Governor Cecil Andrus was Idaho’s last leader who did so. 23 years ago, after salmon were put on the endangered list, he led others in our region to seek a lawful, helpful-to-salmon and practical-for-people settlement. He failed in that, but achieved three big things. Forces co-led by Larry Craig were stopped from getting a large slice of Northwest people to give up on wild salmon. Idaho sockeye salmon became a poster child for the stakes in extinction. And Andrus began the work in federal court that later forced first-step changes in dam operations. He even got some too-brief help from his Republican successor Phil Batt.

Native and non-native Idahoans were among those Andrus rallied. They have kept working since for Idaho’s one-of-a-kind ocean fish. They’ve helped achieve an incremental boost in salmon survival through the dams, some betterment of our stream and lake salmon habitats, the emergency room hatchery program that has temporarily staved off extinction of the sockeye salmon or red fish of Idaho, a continued popular base in Idaho for salmon, and a continuing voice for restoring one-eighth of the Snake River.

I think Idaho’s salmon, even with their astonishing native power, would be close to toast today without these and other results from Andrus and the continuing company of women and men he helped coalesce. From that foundation, the District Court has now lifted a scaffold of law, science and public action, on which to again try to craft the politics for the bigger steps needed. We should have no illusions; without these steps Idaho’s salmon will disappear. Five years is too long for salmon that need help now, but perhaps it is enough time for a patient strategy to make some part of official, electoral Idaho a productive player again in crafting a dams-and-salmon settlement.

It’s uphill of course, but I hope Idaho tribal, conservation, fishing and outdoor business folks look hard at trying. Idahoans can play other useful roles in this bigger-than-Idaho matter-in public turnout, legal and regulatory pressure, communications, national contact-but Northwest politics, of which Idaho’s is part, is the fulcrum here. For now salmon still run uphill each year to us. How can we not make an uphill run for them?

In a next post, I’ll turn to the waters, and the salmon in them whose prospects are most dire: the red fish.