Cutting the Noose From the Salmon's Neck

by David James Duncan
Fly Fishing Catalog 2003

The Pacific Ocean covers 70 million square miles of this planet. A vast network of birthing rivers is needed to fill a biologically meaningful portion of so great a sea with salmon. One of the most crucial of such networks is the Columbia/Snake river system, a single great Y-shaped flow, each wing of the Y a thousand miles in length, draining 260,000 square miles of continent all told.

The entire salmon and steelhead population of the Columbia wing was destroyed in a day, fifty years ago, by the Grand Coulee Dam. The Snake wing is now the only significant salmon sanctuary left in this system. Thanks to the Wilderness Act, hundreds of its tributaries remain intact and healthy. Yet system-wide salmon extinction is predicted by the year 2017. The problem is the infamous lower Snake River dams. A 130-mile corridor of flaccid, desert-heated, predator-filled slackwater and four killing sets of turbines sit between the Pacific and the salmon's vast wild refuge, killing up to 97% of ocean-bound juveniles and 40% of returning adults every year.

In just 25 years the dams have wiped out 90% of the system's salmon, extirpating many discrete strains. Three billion taxpayer dollars have been spent "techno-fixing" the dams, yet every surviving salmon is endangered. Hatcheries cannot replace these salmon. The "man-made" strains are essentially just batches of identical first-cousins, forced to inbreed till they self-destruct due to technological incest. It is wild stocks alone that give hatchery and net-pen salmon their fleeting viability. Without wild salmon in a river system, there are soon no salmon.

An industrial economy can only remain profitable by achieving lasting balance with the natural economy that supports it. A majority of Americans, including editorial boards of scores of major newspapers, now embrace this view. The New York Times, for instance, in April 2000, called the lower Snake dams "a colossal ecological mistake" and states that "an unprejudiced calculation of costs and benefits" would force Congress to fund their breaching. When ex-Senator Slade Gorton saw this editorial, he responded with a tirade in the Times, claiming that breaching the dams would "destroy the way of life in eastern Washington, eliminate our transportation system, raise electricity rates and cost our farmers their irrigation water."

I have bad news for Mr. Gorton: in September 2002 the Rand Corporation – a conservative research group of sterling reputation among Republicans and Democrats alike – completed an in-depth study of Northwest energy issues, including exhaustive analysis of the four dams' removal. The report concludes that removing the lower Snake River dams could in fact have a positive economic impact, bringing new jobs and fresh economic activity in eastern Washington and the entire Northwest.

The Snake River dams are Cold War relics. They were commissioned by a 1955 Congress to power Hanford City as it built plutonium triggers for a nuclear arsenal aimed at the USSR. They were opposed by President Eisenhower, by the Army Corps that later built them, by the region's Indian tribes, the West Coast's multi-billion-dollar fishing industry, and the majority of the Northwest populace. In the quarter-century since they came on line, nine-tenths of the inland West's wild salmon have been destroyed, as feared.


The USSR is dissolved. Hanford City has been a radioactive ghost town for forty years. The barging channel created by the Snake River dams is like an insanely misplaced Panama Canal leading nowhere but to tiny Lewiston, Idaho. This "canal" transports almost nothing but wheat, and runs parallel to freeways and railroads that could carry the same cargo. Its maintenance costs taxpayers' billions, and damages the economies of scores of towns in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and up and down a thousand miles of Pacific Coast. It inflicts religious persecution and economic apartheid upon 13 Indian tribes whose world view and way of life centers on the salmon. Its dams provide no flood control. One of the four provides irrigation, but the water can be pumped to farms from a free-flowing river with the dam removed. The hydropower provided could be immediately replaced by existing power sources, or as the Rand study recommends, by solar and wind generation. In the Army Corp's hearings on dam removal in the year 2000, 80% of those who testified in 12 Northwest cities called for dam breaching. Written support was even more unanimous and poured in from all over the United States. In rivers where dams have been breached, salmon have returned in astonishing numbers.

The best thing to come out of the Northwest for ten thousand years is the wild salmon. These magnificent fish – to borrow a trope from Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac – "will always exist in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights." Book salmon cannot turn the face of the lower Columbia into a glorious crimson cauldron in the rays of a setting sun. They can't nourish a bear cub, otter whelp, eagle, orca or child. They can't serve as the sacramental blessing of the tribes. They can't send energy shooting from the hidden depths of a green river up a line into the hands, body and heart of a fishing woman or man. Wild salmon show us how to give of ourselves for the sake of things greater than ourselves. Their mass passage from the sea's free and invisible into the rivers' sacrificial and seen is not just every American's but every earth-born man, woman and child's birthright. Their bodies are the needle, their migration the thread, that sew this big broken region into a whole. No kilowatt can replace this. No barge can transport it.