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NW Fishletter #394, June 3, 2019

[5] Idaho Conference Perspective: The Power Of Collaboration

Put 20 panelists with vastly different interests in a room with 400 conference-goers, ask them to talk about a controversial issue like Snake River dams and salmon recovery, and what do you get?

If you had asked me, I would have said, "One big argument."

But organizers of the 2019 Environmental Conference at Boise State University on April 23 wisely asked panelists not to rehash their positions--which are only too familiar--and instead, to come with an open mind and focus on "moving the ball forward."

Finding solutions is what Andrus Center for Public Policy forums are about. Named for Cecil Andrus, former Idaho governor and U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Center noted that Andrus supported both the public power system and healthy fish populations in Idaho. Throughout his career, he worked toward finding bipartisan solutions to many issues.

In newspapers across the region, and in NW Fishletter, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson--a Republican--captured the conference-coverage headlines for suggesting that it's time to explore what would happen, and how people who depend on the dams could continue on, if the four lower Snake River dams are taken out.

But proponents of hydropower should be just as encouraged as tribes and other salmon advocates were by what they heard at the conference. That's because panelists representing groups that have been fighting the Federal Columbia River Power System and winning in court signaled a strong desire to put down the law books and pick up the talking stick. Some are convinced that breaching the Snake River dams is the best--and maybe only--way to save Idaho's salmon runs, but they're willing to come to the table and consider other options.

Panelist Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director for Save Our Wild Salmon, said environmental groups "do not want a solution that's created on the backs of anyone here." While pointing out reasons she believes dam removal is the best option, Mace also said she sees the importance of having substantive and solution-oriented conversations.

Jason Minor, natural resources policy manager for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, encouraged everyone to question their assumptions while staying true to their goals. "Governor Brown is deeply committed to a carbon-free power future. And also the notion that it cannot and should not come at a cost to native fish," Minor said. He said a collaborative solution will be more durable than a litigated winner-take-all outcome, and added, "I walk away with the intent to solve problems."

Even an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who sat on one of the four panels, Giulia Good Stefani, said although federal agencies continue to operate the dams using biological opinions that have been deemed inadequate by the courts, "I recognize that litigation has not worked. We are still stuck."

Stefani said she believes the science shows dam removal is the best way to restore salmon, but she acknowledged, "I haven't seen other suggestions. If you told me there was another way to restore salmon, I'd be in." Then, she raised a concern that comes with the collaborative process: "How do we all get to a place where we can be open-minded about it?"

Panelists representing communities, barge transportation, agriculture and low-cost energy expressed similar concerns.

David Reeploeg, vice president of federal programs for the Tri-Cities Development Council, pointed to a dismissive attitude he's seen from some people who are pushing for dam removal when talking about those whose livelihoods depend on the dams. "Our region has been asked to cut off our arm while others haven't cut their fingernails," he said.

Even the starting point of creating a stakeholder group that will look at the impacts of dam removal seems unfair, he said. Rather than talk about how to recover salmon, the dialogue is already about taking out the dams and making it less painful to those who depend on them. "That's a hard place to start the conversation," he said.

But while interests still seem miles apart, some common-ground starting points became evident at the conference: Restoring healthy salmon and steelhead runs in the Snake River must become a priority. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is an important part of this region's future--both for energy needs and fish recovery--so its financial stability must also be a priority.

Hydroelectric dams, in general, provide clean energy that will be an important piece of the Pacific Northwest's clean energy future. Court battles over the Snake River dams are likely to continue after the release of an environmental impact statement (EIS) on Columbia River System Operations, but a stakeholder-driven solution could provide a more equitable outcome. And, people in communities who depend on the dams--farmers and irrigators, barge companies, port districts, businesses and others--need to be "made whole" if the solution includes removing dams.

It's a tall order, but then, the goals of stakeholder processes usually are.

Throughout the conference, other recent collaborations were held up as examples of difficult issues resolved using a stakeholder process. This spring's flexible spill agreement--although it may not become a permanent solution to the downstream fish passage issue--was among them.

BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer noted that the process of hammering out the agreement itself developed trust between those who have been on opposite sides of the courtroom for decades, and a willingness to work together that could carry forward if flexible spill does not meet its goals. Even when it's hard work, he added, "It feels good to work collaboratively."

Michael Garrity, Columbia River and water policy manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted that after fighting for decades over water, the Yakama Nation, irrigators and conservation groups agreed to the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan by "putting away long-held positions." He said irrigators began to support fish passage at Bureau of Reclamation dams, and conservation groups became open to water storage projects. Similarly, he noted NOAA Fisheries convened the Columbia Basin Partnership which developed both qualitative and quantitative goals for Columbia Basin fish returns.

Darrel Anderson, CEO of Idaho Power, talked about his company's collaborative work with constituents which led to a new goal to become carbon-free by 2045. He said that some of details about how they'll get there haven't been figured out, and will be worked out along the way. "We're relying on technology advances between now and then," he added.

Stephanie Solien, who co-chairs Washington's Southern Resident Orca Task Force, pointed to the success of that group, which brought together 49 people with very different interests coming together with one purpose--to prevent the orcas from going extinct.

After issuing 36 recommendations, the Washington Legislature passed four significant bills and budgeted $933 million to carry out many of its recommendations. That funding included $750,000 to hire a neutral third party that will lead a new stakeholder process to look at impacts of removing the Snake River dams.

In a conversation after the conference, Solien, who is also vice chair of the Puget Sound Partnership's Leadership Council, said she came away from the event with newfound hope.

"It felt like a breakthrough day," she said. "Somehow, the Andrus organizers had their finger on both the frustrations that people have been feeling about a lack of movement on recovering salmon, but they also, I think, had a sense that the love for this place might get people to step forward and be willing to come together and work together."

She said when she agreed to be a panelist, organizers asked her to bring only an open mind, so she left her "Orca 101" notes at home and came ready to listen instead. What became clear to her by listening to the panels and speakers is that saving salmon--which will help save orcas--is not a Democratic or Republican issue in this region, nor is it divided by the Cascade Mountains.

"What gives me hope is this Pacific Northwest region--Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana--we're all experiencing significant environmental impacts on species we love, whether it's orcas, salmon or our forests. A lot of it's due to our changing climate. A lot of it's due to human impact and population change. We're all sensing what we stand to lose, and we don't have time to keep fighting it out in court."

Whether you're a fan of collaborative efforts or not, this issue of salmon, steelhead and the Snake River dams is soon to be the topic of at least one stakeholder process, perhaps more.

One panelist at the conference--Merrill Beyeler, a former Idaho lawmaker and the owner of Beyeler Ranches in the Lemhi Valley--offered his own thoughts on a truly successful collaborative effort.

"I think what has to happen is, we have to find some way to advocate for each other," he said. That means seeing the other side so clearly that you begin to advocate for it.

Beyeler talked about working with biologists to reconnect tributaries on his ranch in the Lemhi Valley that had been dewatered when the Lemhi River was straightened decades earlier. After years of restoration work--when salmon were starting to return--one of the biologists who worked on the project came to take a look.

Beyeler recalled, "We were talking about grazing and he said, 'I think it's time to put cattle back on the river,' and I said, 'I think we ought to wait two or three more years.'"

To have the biologist advocating for the cattle rancher, and the rancher advocating for the fish is what happens when everyone becomes invested not in their own interests, but in the solution. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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