Sawdust gathers at Louis Reuben’s feet as he digs into a pine log with a circular adze. He and other members of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho have been chipping away at the log for eight weeks. In several more months, a fully formed canoe—the first built by tribal members in a century—will be river-ready.
Reuben does this work, often alongside his 12-year-old son, Devin, to revive a part of the tribe’s culture that had been lost and to pass it to the next generation.
“Responsibility is, as a tribal member, to keep knowledge going and to keep traditions alive,” Reuben says.
It takes vision to look at a pine log and see both a canoe and deep ancestral traditions. And then it takes persistence to chip at it month after month until vision becomes reality. The same vision and persistence exemplifies the tribe’s long fight to remove dams from the Snake River. On this particular weekend earlier this month, both efforts came together at the confluence of the lower Snake and Clearwater rivers.
Pickup trucks rumble into Chief Timothy Park, just outside Lewiston, Idaho, towing kayaks and canoes and swelling the campground with hundreds of tribal members, boaters, anglers, local business owners, and other river advocates. They are gathering to take part in the Free the Snake Flotilla, an annual rally on the water organized by the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition and Friends of the Clearwater.
Their vision: Remove four dams from the Snake River in what would amount to the greatest wild salmon recovery and river restoration in history. Protests against these dams have persisted for more than 40 years. Free the Snake activists are racing against time as native fish die off.
All four species of wild salmon and steelhead found in the lower Snake and Clearwater rivers are now listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Scientists say the species are crashing because of the four dams—Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor—that hinder fish passage.
For centuries, the Nez Perce have relied on salmon for sustenance and trade. The tribe, along with the state of Oregon and a coalition of conservation and fishing groups represented by Earthjustice, have been in court successfully battling a series of failed federal hydropower management plans for nearly two decades.
In five different rulings, federal judges have found these plans illegal and ordered the agencies to help these native fish survive and recover. The most recent court decision in 2016 ordered the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to take a fresh look at these dams and their deadly impacts on salmon and steelhead, opening up a public comment period.
People from around the Pacific Northwest and beyond heeded the call with nearly 400,000 comments calling for dam removal. Those comments must all be considered as the agencies draft their environmental impact statement due in 2020. This process could be overridden and all those people’s comments ignored if a proposed bill in Congress seeking to prevent changes to dam operations despite the public and court pressure passes.
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At Chief Timothy Park, a cross-section of river defenders gather ahead of the next morning’s float. Reuben and other members of the Nez Perce join the crowd, as do members of the Palouse, Snohomish, Nooksack, Kalispel, Colville, Lummi, Duwamish, Lakota Sioux, Saanich, Shoshone-Bannock, Yakama, Umatilla and Klamath tribes.
All of these tribes are salmon people, says Julian Matthews, a Nez Perce member and treasurer of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting tribal lands and waters.
“[We] have a profound respect for salmon,” Matthews says. “We want to make sure we protect their rights to swim up and down these rivers, to spawn and then return, and make sure we do our part to protect them just as they’ve protected us.”
Among those in camp is Dave Cannamela, a newly-retired fisheries biologist. He shares with me thoughts he could not speak for years when he worked for the state of Idaho under a gag order. About a decade ago, the state signed an agreement with federal agencies not to oppose the dams, even though Idaho sees the brunt of the disaster.
“We’re in very, very deep trouble right now,” Cannamela says. “Historically, when the dams were built and these reservoirs were formed it was trouble for juvenile fish getting out.”
The major impact on the fish is not the adults struggling up fish ladders at the four dams to spawn. The bigger problem, Cannamela explained, is with the juvenile salmon and steelhead getting slowed in the warm, slackwater reservoirs on their 800 mile migration from the mountains out to sea.
“I use a bathtub analogy. In a bathtub you put the stopper in and you’ve got no flow. You pull the plug and you’ve got a river,” Cannamela says. “So with this hot water in these bathtubs, we lost 250,000 sockeye salmon [in 2015].”
Time is running out for these fish. After every court ruling, federal agencies have submitted plans that only make slight modifications upon the prior illegal plans. These band-aid solutions cost taxpayers billions and do little to help these fish rebound. In the past 20 years, taxpayers have spent over $10 billion on ineffective engineering solutions like barging fish downriver and on scattered habitat restoration projects and not a single species has recovered.
The next morning, the launch site bustles with people packing food and water, preparing their kayaks, canoes, and dories. Devon Barker-Hicks, who owns a family rafting business, takes to the loudspeaker.
“We built the dams. We know how to build. Let’s use our collective knowledge to build,” she begins. “Let’s build beaches. Let’s build current. Let’s build shade. Let’s build fish runs. Let’s build jobs. Let’s build river communities. Let’s build healthy water. Let’s build native lands. Let’s build whitewater!”
As her voice rises, the crowd gathers closer cheering her on. Barker-Hicks’ says her husband, too, depends on the river working as a salmon fishing guide.
“If you are pro dam, you must realize you also say no to fish, local cafes, gas stations, guides, to my husband’s way of life, to hotels, to the tourists. You are saying no to many things.”
Fired up by her speech, the paddlers head to the water. Families pile into canoes, while kayaks of every color skirt out into the calm water. College students from University of Idaho, Washington State University, Reed College and Gonzaga University hop into rafts or stand-up paddleboards. Members of the Upper Columbia tribes who’ve recently revived their canoe culture paddle out in dug-out canoes. Fishermen row their boats. One raft full of college students sings the National Anthem. The rally has begun, a colorful floating parade all paddling together down the lower Snake River into the canyon.
Three miles downstream from Chief Timothy Park, the people on the water converge around a big “Free the Snake” banner in the water. Tribal members sing a call and response and someone beats a drum sending reverberations across the water. An organizer leads the group in several rounds of “Free the Snake! Free the Snake!” A dog in one of the boats starts howling in unison.
There is an inevitability that the dams will eventually come down–whether it will happen in time for the fish is the only question. With a free-flowing river, many believe the town of Lewiston, Idaho could host a thriving tourism industry. A revitalized river could spur greater biological diversity, the return not only of the fish, but of birds and other species as has been seen in other recent cases, such as with the Kennebec River in Maine and on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula.
But if the dams remain much longer, the town will soon be looking at expensive mitigation projects to avoid flooding. Sediment that is normally swept out toward the sea has been blocked by the dams, building up and raising the river’s water levels. If the dams remain, the town will need to raise bridges and build up the dike along the river’s edge, walling off people from access to the water.
The dams represent a choice between stagnant waters and a stagnant economy or a wild and restored river with great new possibility.
Back at Chief Timothy Park, a family from one of the tribes plays in the water by the dock. The father stands on the dock pulling his laughing, wet kids from the river. A young boy jumps into the water and pops up laughing.
“This is fun!” he cries. “I can’t believe how scared I was before. Who else wants to jump in?”
“I do,” I yell.
“Yes!” he cries, beaming. “Water is love! Water is life!”
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