In the northwest U.S. states of Oregon, Idaho and Washington, an epic environmental battle is underway to save wild populations of Pacific salmon threatened with extinction. Critics of the effort warn that the cost of saving the salmon will have enormous economic consequences for the Pacific Northwest. The region faces hard choices as it tries to balance the demands of a growing economy with the desire to preserve the natural environment.
The mighty Columbia River brings life to the Pacific Northwest. On its nearly 2,000-kilometer journey from Canada to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia provides hydroelectric power for cities and towns, irrigates crops, and serves as an inland waterway that sends western wheat exports on their way to Asia and the Middle East.
Historically, the Columbia has been known for its legendary runs of Pacific salmon. Two hundred years ago when explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark followed the river to the sea, as many as 16 million wild salmon and sea-run trout migrated up the Columbia each year to spawn. Today that number has dropped to about 200,000, less than three-percent of its historic high.
You have got to fish with three spinners and about a ton of weight," laughed Biff LeFors. " I don't know if I will catch any fish or not. A few now and then I guess is all." Mr. LeFors is a retiree from Portland who spends as many days as he can fishing along the Columbia for "really nice, fat fish. But they are hard to catch!"
But salmon are more than a recreational diversion in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber said that in this region, "salmon hold a very special meaning for us. They represent the power of history, they represent the power of identity and they represent the power of the past's promise to the future."
Wild salmon stocks also serve as an important indicator of the health of the environment in the Pacific Northwest. Joe Whitworth, Executive Director of Oregon Trout, an environmental group seeking to save wild runs of salmon and sea-run trout known as steelhead described salmon as "truly the canary in the coal mine, an indicator species for how healthy a watershed is. If your salmon runs are doing well, that means you have clean water, you have cool water, and you are not engaging in unsustainable forestry practices that will result in landslides and big sedimentation in the streams," he said.
Salmon are also important to Native Americans who have fished the Columbia for centuries. Charles Hudson is with the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, an agency that regulates fishing for the four Indian tribes that have historically relied on the salmon catch from the Columbia and its tributaries.
"Salmon restoration has the highest priority from the tribal governments," said Mr. Hudson. "Again, the tribes' identity, their very identity, their feeling of their spiritual selves, their economic selves, is tied directly to their ability to work to restore fish."
Saving the wild salmon will not be easy. Salmon hatch in fresh water, migrate to the ocean for a few years, and then return to their native streams to spawn. But the construction of numerous dams on the Columbia and its tributaries has prevented most of the salmon from either returning upriver to spawn or heading downstream to the ocean. In addition, timber harvesting, farming, and ranching have had a negative impact on water quality in the salmon spawning areas.
Doug Arndt of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency that builds and operates hydroelectric dams around the country, explained that "frankly, the biology of the salmon is complex. They live part of their life upstream, part of their life in the ocean. It is not certain just what it is going to take to fix it, and that is a fact. There clearly is no silver bullet. The idea that there is a simple fix just is not right. It is going to take a lot of work," he concluded.
Complicating the salmon restoration effort are critics who worry that environmentalists are going too far in demanding new regulations on industries and private landowners who rely on the Columbia for water and power.
Bill Moshofsky of Oregonians in Action, a group that opposes most government regulations on private landowners, blames pro-salmon efforts on "some hardcore environmental groups, or so-called environmental groups, who want to use the salmon as a way to restore terrain to the way it was when Lewis and Clark came," referring to explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who traveled the area in 1805.
The federal government has launched an eight-year salmon recovery plan expected to cost $4 billion.
Supporters of salmon restoration acknowledge the cost is high. But they also insist it is a price worth paying to ensure that future generations can enjoy the natural bounty of the Pacific Northwest that the salmon represent, even as the region's population and economy continue to grow.