ADVERSITY

Re: Request for comment on salmon and the Salmon River

BY STEVEN HAWLEY

Author’s note: In March of 2022, the Biden Administration’s White House Council on Environmental Quality offered an opportunity for the public to email comments on what should be done to restore salmon to the Columbia River Basin. In keeping with the theme of this issue of Mountain Outlaw, I’ve filed this “comment” with the below-listed email address for CEQ and strongly encourage anyone who loves fish and rivers to do the same.

 

Greetings, White House Council on Environmental Quality staff member or intern:

First, I’d like to express my gratitude for your service to our nation through your work. As I’m sure you’re aware, CEQ was created with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. Its mission is to ensure that federal agencies fulfill their environmental stewardship obligations. Through the years, living up to these standards has proven difficult to achieve, much less maintain. Thank you for taking on such a formidable challenge.

I’m writing to you from a bar in Stanley, Idaho. This town is nestled in a high-alpine valley 6,250 feet above sea level. To the west, the massive jaws of the Sawtooth Mountains dwarf this little outpost. In every other direction, a network of creeks forms one of the world’s great salmon nurseries.

This bar, the Rod-N-Gun Whitewater Saloon, opened its doors in 1931. It’s situated on the west end of the few blocks that comprise downtown Stanley, population 115. The original owner lost the place in a card game, and since 1971 the saloon has been owned by one family. Casanova Jack Kirch poured drinks and entertained patrons with his band, The Stardusters. Since Jack’s death, his brother Johnny Ray has run it. It’s a long history in an unlikely place for a bar to survive, much less feature live music regularly. But this alpine valley has long bred a kind of graceful endurance that emulates the millions of salmon that swam to and from its madrigal of mountain waters.

I want to tell you about the bartop that graces this rustic establishment. It is a 15-foot-long, flat-cut, blond-hued, thick timber slab; and it features an intricately inlaid map of the Middle Fork Salmon River and its tributaries, a shrine to the river and some of its storied places: Velvet Falls, Impassable Canyon, Redside Rapids.

But the Middle Fork’s beauty is haunted. Its namesake fish, the Chinook salmon, is circling the extinction drain. And I want to tell you it doesn’t have to be this way.

Some 10,000 folks each year float the 104 miles of the Middle Fork down to its confluence with the Main Salmon. From there it’s still another 100 miles downriver to the nearest town, Riggins, Idaho. From Riggins, the Main Salmon curves north for 86 miles, meeting the Snake River in Hell’s Canyon. Then, for roughly 170 miles, the Snake flows north and west, meeting the Columbia River near Pasco, Washington. Three hundred five miles from Pasco, the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. Chinook salmon from the Middle Fork Salmon River swim this entire distance—all 900 miles—at least two times in their lives, migrating to sea as finger-length juveniles, and returning as yardstick-long adults.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River swirls through a rock boulder garden in the Frank Church Wilderness. PHOTO BY JOHNMICHAEL/ADOBE STOCK

Not far from Marsh Creek, the river quits being a river and instead morphs into a 500-mile-long series of dams and reservoirs. Biologists have determined that a Marsh Creek salmon’s journey to the ocean once took two weeks. It now takes two months.

Twenty miles northwest of Stanley on State Highway 21, there’s a wide, unmarked turnout. For 10 months of the year, you’re unlikely to see a car parked there. But in May and June, it’s a busy place. Here, for a few weeks in late spring, you can put on at Marsh Creek as it flows out of its headwaters in the Sawtooth Mountains and float to where it joins Bear Valley Creek some 7 miles downstream, whereupon commences the Middle Fork Salmon.

For years in early June, an impromptu downriver race has taken place, with the starting line at dawn at Marsh Creek, and the finish line however far a team of paddlers can make it before sunup the next day. On June 3, 2017, four kayakers—Tyler Bradt, Aniol Serrasolses, Todd Wells and Brendan Wells—taking advantage of the highest flows in a decade, launched from that Highway 21 turnout at first light. By dawn on June 4, their GPS tracker reported they’d averaged 11.5 miles an hour and moved 287.5 miles in 24 hours, a world record. They’d covered all 104 miles of the Middle Fork before lunch.

The namesake fish of the Salmon River pioneered this route between Stanley and sea level. After their 900-mile swim, adult salmon spawn and then die in the high mountain meadows of Marsh Creek and neighboring waterways. The resulting fertilized eggs, the color of a sunrise and the size of a coffee bean, hatch in-river as the days lengthen and the snow begins to melt. When the time is right, these juveniles start to ride the prodigious river current toward the ocean. They go backwards—facing upstream like surfers on a wave, letting the pulse and flow of their home water carry them seaward.

Here’s the problem:      not far from Marsh Creek, the river quits being a river and instead morphs into a 500-mile-long series of dams and reservoirs. Biologists have determined that a Marsh Creek salmon’s journey to the ocean once took two weeks. It now takes two months. The delay starts where the flowing river stops.

Passage through eight dams along the way can be lethal. Salmon either make it over the spillway of the dam or through the powerhouse, where, if they’re lucky enough to dodge the hazards of swimming in an industrial pipeline, they undergo a hasty scientific examination. Anesthetized, weighed, measured and stapled with a rice grain-sized transponder that allows them to be tracked like grocery store inventory, they are piped back into the river, only to undergo the same examination process at the next dam downstream.

Wild Chinook salmon swim through shallow waters. Through the 1950s, the Middle Fork yielded an estimated 48,000 Chinook annually. PHOTO BY RANDIMAL/ADOBE STOCK

I’m sure you’ve read lots of emails arguing dams haven’t caused the lion’s share of salmon decline. Good science does not support this claim.

A third passage route is by boat. In this scenario, fish are collected in the powerhouse exam room, piped onto a barge, hauled to tidewater below Bonneville Dam near Portland, then flushed back into the river. Rescuing fish from water ought to be as absurd a proposition as saving birds from the perils of the sky. We don’t FedEx sandhill cranes to get them to the tundra.

These slackwater salmon also must commit an unnatural act: turn around and swim of their own volition instead of riding the current. This extra expenditure of metabolic energy increases the odds they become bird food rather than adult salmon. In drought years, mortality rates for out-migrating salmon can exceed 90 percent.

I’m sure you’ve read lots of emails arguing dams haven’t caused the lion’s share of salmon decline. Good science does not support this claim. A long, slow decline in salmon numbers began in the late 1800s, but the Middle Fork and its sister Idaho wilderness rivers remained something of a stronghold. Fish habitat remained—and remains—as good as it was at the end of the last ice age.

Through the 1950s, the Middle Fork yielded an estimated 48,000 Chinook annually. In 1959, the Chinook fishing season on the Middle Fork was 11 weeks long, with a two-fish-per-day limit. On its sister river, the Selway, so many salmon returned during this same era that western Montana residents would set up camp at Selway Falls for a few weeks every summer, where they’d catch their share of Chinook and haul it home to their freezers.

Then, around the time Cassanova Jack began slinging cocktails and singing country music covers at the Rod-N-Gun in Stanley, Middle Fork salmon numbers collapsed. The last full-length salmon fishing season in Idaho was in 1974. The last of four dams on the Snake was completed in 1975. The problem isn’t with the Middle Fork. It’s downstream.

The culprit in Idaho’s missing salmon is those four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington. They choke off access to the Middle Fork and its neighboring wild rivers. Within a decade of these dams’ completion, runs of Chinook on the Middle Fork were reduced from almost 50,000 to less than 1,500 a year. In 2019, there were 322.

Steven Hawley wrote this letter from the bartop at the Rod-N-Gun Whitewater Saloon in Stanley, Idaho, which opened its doors in 1931. The Salmon River is ornately carved into the bartop wood. PHOTO BY ELI KRETZMANN

In 1994, a federal court commissioned a science panel to determine what portion of the salmon demise could be attributed to the federal hydrosystem on the Columbia. The panel’s conclusion: 80 percent.

A third passage route is by boat. In this scenario, fish are collected in the powerhouse exam room, piped onto a barge, hauled to tidewater below Bonneville Dam near Portland, then flushed back into the river. Rescuing fish from water ought to be as absurd a proposition as saving birds from the perils of the sky. We don’t FedEx sandhill cranes to get them to the tundra.

These slackwater salmon also must commit an unnatural act: turn around and swim of their own volition instead of riding the current. This extra expenditure of metabolic energy increases the odds they become bird food rather than adult salmon. In drought years, mortality rates for out-migrating salmon can exceed 90 percent.

I’m sure you’ve read lots of emails arguing dams haven’t caused the lion’s share of salmon decline. Good science does not support this claim. A long, slow decline in salmon numbers began in the late 1800s, but the Middle Fork and its sister Idaho wilderness rivers remained something of a stronghold. Fish habitat remained—and remains—as good as it was at the end of the last ice age.

Through the 1950s, the Middle Fork yielded an estimated 48,000 Chinook annually. In 1959, the Chinook fishing season on the Middle Fork was 11 weeks long, with a two-fish-per-day limit. On its sister river, the Selway, so many salmon returned during this same era that western Montana residents would set up camp at Selway Falls for a few weeks every summer, where they’d catch their share of Chinook and haul it home to their freezers.

Then, around the time Cassanova Jack began slinging cocktails and singing country music covers at the Rod-N-Gun in Stanley, Middle Fork salmon numbers collapsed. The last full-length salmon fishing season in Idaho was in 1974. The last of four dams on the Snake was completed in 1975. The problem isn’t with the Middle Fork. It’s downstream.

The culprit in Idaho’s missing salmon is those four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington. They choke off access to the Middle Fork and its neighboring wild rivers. Within a decade of these dams’ completion, runs of Chinook on the Middle Fork were reduced from almost 50,000 to less than 1,500 a year. In 2019, there were 322.

LEFT: Russ Thurow, a fisheries research scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, rows down the Middle Fork of the Salmon. PHOTO BY JIM YOUNK RIGHT: Overlooking Little Creek Pack Bridge crossing the Middle Fork of the Salmon during a smoky August day. PHOTO BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR

It has to start individually with us starting to insist upon responsibility again. I don’t think politics is going to fix culture. I think culture has to fix the politics.

In 1994, a federal court commissioned a science panel to determine what portion of the salmon demise could be attributed to the federal hydrosystem on the Columbia. The panel’s conclusion: 80 percent. A separate multiagency study a few years later concluded the most likely path toward recovering salmon in the Columbia Basin was to remove those four dams on the lower Snake. Eventually, the federal government agreed. An $80 million, five-year study released last year determined removing dams is the best way to restore salmon. However, it balked at endorsing this option, citing the economic cost—a curious conclusion.

On the contrary, it isn’t clear at all that the financial liability of letting salmon go extinct was part of the calculus of this study. Another federal study from 2001 lists the minimum annual economic value of restoring some fraction of salmon to Idaho at $182 million. Their value only increases when you consider ecological, cultural and religious worth. They are the keystone critters of the ecology of the Pacific Northwest. They fortified—spiritually, economically, culturally, and calorically—the First Nations peoples of western North America. They fed, at one stage or another of their lives, 137 different animals, from tiny shrews to 10-ton killer whales. They turbo-charged the fecundity of old-growth forests by fertilizing them with marine-derived nutrients. They created a fortune for a fleet of ocean-going commercial fishers.

Their continued existence is guaranteed by the United States government in the form of treaties that were ratified by Congress as the “supreme law of the land.” Salmon recovery is also directly mandated by at least two federal laws, the Endangered Species Act, and the Northwest Power Act, and indirectly by the Clean Water Act. First Nations have been patient as the federal government tries to transform dams that cause a clear violation of treaty fishing rights into ones that don’t.

When Columbia River salmon recovery was mandated in 1980 with the passage of the Northwest Power Act, Columbia River salmon runs had declined from between 10 million and 16 million annually in the late 19th century to 2.5 million. The goal in the early 1980s was to double annual salmon returns to 5 million. Instead, the effort to recover salmon has cut that number in half again, to a little over 1 million fish each year.

More than 40 years and $17 billion have been spent on a failed salmon recovery program, with little in the way of serious examination about why it has failed. Yet, based on the rejection of evidence gathered in their own most recent study, the federal government assumes that salmon recovery must take place without altering the perceived benefits that dams provide. Federal salmon recovery laws contain no language that even vaguely outlines this implicit assumption.

There is no economic activity that involves a dammed river that can’t be accomplished another way. Wild Chinook salmon in the Middle Fork, by contrast, have only one way.

Sunshine illuminates the riverbank along the rapids of the Salmon River. PHOTO BY HANJO/ADOBE STOCK

If salmon are blinking out in the Middle Fork, I wanted one last look, which I got, and now am suffering from a mix of emotions that feels like unrequited love.

You should know that there are knowledgeable, dedicated scientists working at some of the federal agencies with which CEQ is coordinating. One of them is Russ Thurow, who’s been studying salmon in the Middle Fork, first for the state of Idaho, then for the U.S. Forest Service, since 1979. I met Thurow in Salmon, Idaho, to take a walk and talk about fish.

“The Middle Fork is an extremely dynamic landscape,” he tells me. “Fires; an intense rain event in July or August. Pretty soon it blows out a tributary. It looks bad to humans. But in places like the Middle Fork these processes are unaltered. That’s what creates the habitat [and] fish have adapted to those kinds of events.”

Each Salmon River tributary has hosted the evolution of a salmon whose genes are unique to that body of water. A Loon Creek Chinook is genetically distinct from her Big Creek cousin, just downstream. Thurow recalls a logjam in upper Big Creek that was a quarter mile long and 30 feet high, with logs jackstrawed so thick it didn’t look like anything could move up or downstream. But Big Creek salmon made it through the maze. Thurow tells me Chinook salmon have been in the Middle Fork for 2 million years. They’re exquisitely adapted to this place.

Because logjams, landslides, floods, fires and droughts remain unaltered, and because salmon have this uncanny ability to adapt to a highly specific set of environmental conditions, Thurow says the Middle Fork, its tributaries and neighboring rivers, are a kind of Noah’s Ark for the genetics of Pacific salmon. There’s a diversity of wild genes that Thurow says will be needed if salmon are to survive the coming centuries of climate chaos.

But genetic diversity is only half of salmon’s unique survival strategy. Abundance is the other half. Thurow says the risk right now comes with historically low returns.

“If you have those numbers, you have this diversity across the landscape,” he points out. “Right now, with such low abundances, there are just huge areas of the Middle Fork with no spawning. Nothing. Zero. We are just bouncing around above extinction. We lose these populations in these tributaries over multiple years, and they’re gone. We are not going to replace them. They are irreplaceable.”

Thurow loves the river. “The Middle Fork is an incredibly unique place,” he tells me. “And without sounding too melodramatic, it’s touched my soul—I return to the Middle Fork on personal trips. Because it rejuvenates me just to be in that country. I do a lot of off-trail hiking; the feeling I get when I’m in some of those places, watching bighorn sheep and watching wild salmon, is that there’s not a lot of modern humans who’ve been there.”

At his urging, I took two days off to hike into one of those special places.      If salmon are blinking out in the Middle Fork, I wanted one last look, which I got, and now am suffering from a mix of emotions that feels like unrequited love.

I’m back at the Rod-N-Gun, finishing this email to you, admiring the map carved into the bartop, trying to deny my haunted heart, fingers tracing my hiking route in the wood. Johnny Ray tells me he’s selling the place. Some party from L.A. is interested. We don’t talk about the reasons for him selling, just about the changes to the valley: the gaudy mansion being built on a prominent bluff overlooking town; the intensifying regime of fire and drought; the tourist pressure that grows as the West’s cities do.

I ask him who made the beautiful map, and he tells me the whole story. If you want to hear it, you’d better hurry and get to Stanley and ask him yourself. Like seeing a big fish around the valley anymore, you never know when the good places could be gone. When next year might be too late.

 

Sincerely,

Steven Hawley

CALL TO ACTION

Send a comment to the White House Council on Environmental Quality explaining how you want to protect the wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin. Email salmon@ceq.eop.gov to submit your comment.

Steven Hawley is a writer from Hood River, Oregon. Most recently, he coproduced and wrote Dammed to Extinction, a documentary film about killer whales whose main source of food is Chinook salmon. His next book on river conservation is forthcoming from Patagonia Books in 2023.

Cover image for the Summer 2022 Issue of Mountain Outlaw