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Salmon have been left out of the plan

Jim Lichatowich lives in Columbia City and is the author of two award-winning books about salmon, "Salmon Without Rivers" (1999) and "Salmon People and Place" (2013).


In the 1930s, the federal government and a few private corporations launched a massive dam building program in the Columbia Basin. After Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams were built, fishermen, cannery owners and biologists were concerned about the effect more dams would have on the Columbia’s massive salmon runs. Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Jim LichatowichThey asked for a moratorium on additional dams below Umatilla.

U. S. Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug, however, approved a memorandum that cleared the way for the full development of the river’s hydroelectric potential. Krug stated: “It is, therefore, the conclusion of all concerned that the overall benefits to the Pacific Northwest from a thorough-going development of the Snake and Columbia are such that the present salmon run must be sacrificed.”

The “all concerned” did not include the fishermen and the many communities that depend on salmon fishing. They were to be sacrificed.

The dam-building era came to an end in 1975 with the defeat of the proposed High Mountain Sheep Dam in Idaho. Just five years later, in 1980, Congress had second thoughts about the narrow-minded decision to sacrifice the salmon and the economy they sustained. It passed the Northwest Power Act, which launched the massive salmon restoration program that has, to date, costs the region’s ratepayers $15.3 billion.

Sometimes political leaders with narrow visions overlook things that people value, like salmon.

We are now in the mist of another energy boom pushed by another small group with a narrow-minded approach. Coal barges and oil trains will move massive amounts of these climate-changing fuels down the Columbia to Port Westward, north of Clatskanie. The current leaders in Columbia County are building an industrial sacrifice zone at Port Westward, but unlike Krug in that earlier era, they will not publicly admit what they are willing to sacrifice — salmon, farms and the health and safety of people living along the rail line that carries mile-long oil trains through the cities of Scappoose, St. Helens, Columbia City and Rainier.

Those who see Port Westward in the Lower Columbia as a major shipping point for coal and oil have so far failed to recognize that the river is also home to salmon.

Think of the Columbia River as a large funnel. Port Westward is in the constricted end, and the upper part of the basin is the wide end. Juvenile salmon pour into the wide end from all the tributaries, and the young salmon pass through the constricted end on their way to sea. Some rear for an extended period in the lower river near Port Westward.

Now imagine human or mechanical error causing a major oil spill that plugs the restricted end of the funnel during the juvenile or adult salmon migration or during the fishing season. It would put at severe risk $15 billion worth of salmon restoration.

What is very troubling is this: As our leaders rush headlong toward a massive increase in the movement of coal and oil down the river or through the county, they show little or no concern for the risk it poses to the salmon.

I support the development of clean industries that do not put our grandchildren’s climate at risk. I support development that is cautious about putting what we value in Columbia County at risk. Our political and economic leaders are putting too much at risk with their narrow-minded pursuit of an industrial sacrifice zone at Port Westward. When confronted with these risks, they either don’t understand the people’s concern or they show a naive faith that everything will turn out OK.

How much will Port Westward add to the salmon recovery bill?