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Newhouse Keynotes Environmental Conference to Support Comprehensive Salmon Recovery, Oppose Misguided Dam-Breaching Proposal

May 13, 2021
Press Release
“Dividing our region, pointing fingers at one another’s backyards – that is only going to hurt our ability to move forward on securing true progress.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) participated as a keynote speaker for the Andrus Center for Public Policy’s 2021 Environmental Conference at Boise State University. Titled “Energy, Salmon, Agriculture and Community: REVISITED,” the conference reprised the Andrus Center’s 2019 conference focusing on the diverse and interconnected factors related to salmon survival, energy production, and economic development throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In addition to Rep. Newhouse, keynote speakers Reps. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and other panelists discussed Rep. Simpson’s $33 billion proposal to breach the four Lower Snake River dams.

Rep. Newhouse spoke in strong opposition to breaching the dams, highlighting both the benefits they provide to the Pacific Northwest and the intellectual dishonesty currently surrounding this debate. He pointed to the region’s extensive history and impact on native salmon species as well as the already-existing, collaborative, and science-based plans for salmon recovery that should be taking precedence.

Rep. Newhouse’s full remarks can be found below:

A Hypothetical Scenario

I’d like to start off with a scenario for you all today, so if you bear with me, let me set the scene for you. The year is 2021. The consensus amongst the vast majority of scientists is that climate change is a threat to our health and our environment. It is the consensus that carbon emissions are the driver of this problem, and that we must take action to limit carbon emissions.

Going along with this hypothetical scenario, although nothing I’ve said thus far is hypothetical – it happens to be an accurate depiction of where we are today. In this scenario, I, a Member of Congress from the Pacific Northwest, decide that we have to start looking at solutions to limit our emissions in order to fight these impacts. And I’ve decided that the best place to start is by tearing out the Boise Airport.

Now, I realize the Boise Airport is very important infrastructure that happens to be located in another Member’s district, not my own. I realize there is probably infrastructure in my own district that contributes its own carbon emissions, but nevertheless, climate change is a problem— so why not start by shutting down operations and permanently closing the Boise Airport?

None of us can say for sure that ending the Boise Airport’s operations is really going to make a difference in our nation’s – or the globe’s – emissions. In fact, we’re quite positive it isn’t likely to make a difference. Nevertheless, climate change is a problem, and I’ve convinced other regional airports like Portland, Seattle, Pasco, and Yakima – to join me in deciding this is going to be the end-all-be-all solution.

Now, we know there are jobs and livelihoods, entire economic sectors and industries, families and communities that depend upon the Boise Airport— but we’ve got them all covered. We’re going to write them a check and let them know that the federal government will take care of them by giving them a lump sum and encourage them to find new jobs, new livelihoods, new ways of life – regardless of how reliant they were on this critical infrastructure.

In this scenario, I’m a Member of Congress not residing in Idaho, where the Boise Airport is located. I’ve been informing my colleagues for months that this is simply a proposal to put forward for discussion, debate, and consideration. It isn’t a piece of legislation, and I have no intention of implementing it without consent from the majority of the bipartisan Pacific Northwest delegation— because, as we know, a proposal of this magnitude is going to have serious repercussions on our regional economy and the quality of life for communities across the Northwest, including those surrounding Boise.

Despite this, I’ve still decided to partner up with another state’s governor – behind the scenes – to ensure this proposal does become law. While I tell my colleagues it isn’t legislation, I am actually working directly with this governor to strategize the best way to make sure the removal of the Boise Airport is in fact in President Biden’s infrastructure proposal because… the stars are aligning on this! This is our chance! We’ve got to make sure this proposal is placed into law in just a matter of months!

So despite overwhelming opposition from my colleagues in the Pacific Northwest; despite overwhelming opposition from the industries who depend upon the Boise Airport; despite the seriously profound implications that can come from such a radically-sweeping proposal to – ironically – tear down infrastructure as a part of an economic recovery infrastructure plan; I’m going to force this proposal into law because I’ve decided shutting down the Boise Airport is the best way to address climate change.

Remember, this is a hypothetical situation of course— and as I come to a close on this analogy, I simply ask that you now pause and ask yourself these questions: If I was the Member of Congress who represented Boise, how would I feel? If I was a worker at the Boise Airport, how would I feel? If I depended upon the Boise Airport to put food on my family’s table, a roof over my house, or paychecks in my employees’ hands, how would I feel?

Introduction

Now, I hope you all can see a bit more where I’m coming from. I don’t want this imperfect analogy to distract from the important conversations taking place today, but I hope you can see why there is such strong concern – and frankly opposition to – the legislative framework Congressman Simpson has proposed.

Moving on from that hypothetical introduction, I should take a moment to first say—hello! I’m Dan Newhouse, I have the honor of representing the 4th Congressional District in Central Washington state, and I am indeed proud to have two of the four Lower Snake River Dams in my District.

I want to sincerely thank the Andrus Center for having me today. I was actually the one to reach out to the Center and offer to share my perspective on these important issues, and I’m grateful they took me up on my offer. I’m sure Rocky Barker was squirming in his seat wondering if the entirety of my remarks were going to play out with that pointed analogy – but no, Rocky, I can assure you I’m here today because I believe these issues are of extreme importance to our region.

While I know you had one or two panelists who spoke from perspectives similar to mine, I think it would have been a disservice to the strong history of the Andrus Center to not have differing views featured during these keynote sessions at your conference, so I appreciate this opportunity. I firmly believe there are solutions that continue to build on our region’s efforts to ensure our native fish species and the Lower Snake River Dams continue to coexist, and I’d like to talk about those today.

Intellectual Dishonesty

Let me first begin by stating unequivocally that human development, including the construction of dams throughout the Pacific Northwest, has placed significant impacts on fish and our environment. There is no doubt about that. Anyone who claims otherwise is sticking their head in the sand. I am not one of those people. We must be honest about our history.

So I am also not someone trying to point at some of the most innovative dams on the planet – with some of the most state-of-the-art fish passage technology ever developed – to claim they have worse impacts on our fish than Idaho’s dams – which I hope everyone is fully aware –  have zero fish passage! Zero.

Many have waved off this fact and claimed that the habitat and fish runs blocked off by dams like Hells Canyon and Dworshak aren’t that important.

Meanwhile, our dams in Washington along the Snake and Columbia Rivers, with fish passage rates in the mid-to-upper 90 percentiles, are apparently the only dams that matter when it comes to assessing the impacts on native fish species.

If we make that assertion, we are not being intellectually honest with ourselves. It is disingenuous, and it is simply wrong.

That’s the thing about the entire overarching challenge of fish and dams and orcas and the river system and our environment – because the ultimate truth is this: This is a complex system, and it faces a great multitude of complex and difficult challenges. Any effort to boil this down to simple half-truths or deal with this issue in absolutes, or to assume a solution can be developed solely upon one main facet, must be called out for its intellectual dishonesty.

We need comprehensive solutions to address complex problems.

In the past, I’ve brought up the importance of the long-term impacts on our native fish species, and why any comprehensive solution to our challenges must include an honest and full understanding of our region’s history and its effects – including the fact that the state of Idaho quite literally poisoned many of their lakes systematically in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s to exterminate native salmon populations.

Perhaps everyone listening today is aware of this— up until a few years ago, I was not. By boat, plane, and handheld spray tanks, thousands upon thousands of gallons of so-called “Fish-Tox” was dumped into waters across Idaho, including Mud Lake, Stanley Lake, and Redfish Lake, as well as Pettit and Yellowbelly Lakes.

After each of these lakes were poisoned with toxic chemicals that constricted the capillaries of native salmon – thereby suffocating the fish, migration barriers were then built to prevent these anadromous fish from returning to their spawning grounds.

As most of you likely know, spawning salmon who have built up their food reserves in the ocean to prepare for their migration back to regions like the Stanley Basin aren’t returning in order to eat, they’re returning to spawn and then die – and that doesn’t bode well for sportsmen trying to get fish to bite! Therefore, a concerted decision was made to rid Idaho’s waterways of these native species and to instead stock their lakes with sportfish, which are much more conducive to attracting Fish and Game license purchases.

This concerted decision and resulting action effectively exterminated these populations and eliminated these fish runs. In too many cases, they are simply not coming back.

Fred Mensik, who for nearly two decades worked to aid our native species as a fish biologist in the Columbia-Snake River System, wrote, “It does not matter if the discussion is about wildlife, economics, or education. Any intelligent discussion includes knowledge of the subject, where we came from and how we got here, creating a foundation upon which to build a better future.”

I encourage everyone listening today to read Mr. Mensik’s book, titled “Whistling Past the Tombstones: Or Remove These Dams.” In it, he details these historical events and dives deep into the records and accounts of these profoundly detrimental actions taken upon our region’s native fish species.

We must acknowledge and assess these actions in history and how they have impacted the data, the tracking, the trends – in essence, the science and the facts – behind these native populations.

As Mr. Mensik writes about the detrimental impacts of Idaho’s dams built without fish ladders, he notes that fish scientists knew what the impact would be if these dams were built. He specifically points to the fish-producing tributaries of the Clearwater Basin, which have been eliminated by the Dworshak Dam.

He also writes, “We are currently seeing the adverse effects as fish numbers decline. But somehow, the focus has not been on these dams, but on dams that have fish ladders, dams that allow fish passage, both upstream and downstream. With everything we know about fish biology, are habitat and productivity only ‘of interest’? How have we become so misdirected?”

One final note that I’d be remiss not to mention – nearly all of the actions I just detailed were conducted in Idaho before the Snake River Dams were even built, and fish returns were clearly documented as declining long before then.

As Mr. Mensik’s book lays out, the wide-ranging impacts placed on our fish across history have led to detrimental consequences for these iconic species. We must recognize these past impacts honestly, assess where we are today scientifically, and move forward with solutions comprehensively – based on science, not emotion.

Fish & Snake River Dams Can – And Do - Coexist

If there is one point I would want folks to take away today, it is that our four Lower Snake River dams and our native fish populations are indeed coexisting. It takes hard work, serious effort, and investment; but they are coexisting.

In 1999, several environmental organizations posted a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline “Timeline to Extinction: If we don’t act, Snake River salmon will disappear forever.” The ad went on to claim that unless the four Lower Snake River dams were removed, wild Snake River spring chinook salmon would be extinct by 2017.

During that spring of 1999, 3,296 Snake River spring chinook passed the Lower Granite Dam – the fourth of the Lower Snake River dams and the furthest east they pass through before they reach Idaho. Last year, in 2020, 23,380 Snake River spring chinook passed that same dam – a more than 700 percent increase compared to 21 years prior.

No one is claiming this means our job is done. Far from it. But we must acknowledge when progress is made and continue moving the needle in the right direction. If productive solutions are ignored in the name of absolutes, we are never going to make true, substantive progress.

So while American Rivers, National Wildlife Federation, Save Our Wild Salmon, the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, and the other environmental groups placed their ad with hyperbolic language meant to scare their audience with the fear-mongering doom of certain extinction of the species, the hard work being conducted on the ground by our fish biologists, local conservation partners, tribal neighbors, federal agencies, and yes indeed, some of these very groups – all of those efforts have been working to make progress! And clearly, this hyperbolic warning was not accurate, nor did it come to fruition.

That is why I so truly believe we cannot allow emotions to dictate our actions. This claim that “if we don’t act now, the species will be gone forever from Idaho in just a few short years” is simply not a responsible way to be approaching the challenge in front of us. For one, we are acting now!

In fact, the Appropriations Subcommittee Mr. Simpson has been leading for the past six years has continued to make tremendous investments in these efforts to fund important work by the various partners I just mentioned. And all of these investments are ones I support wholeheartedly.

At the Ice Harbor Dam in my district, world-class scientists are not only in the process of replacing all of the dam’s turbines with new fish-safe technology, but they are using this dam – one of the four dams proposed for breaching – to conduct critical research on fish passage that will shape the way the world builds and operates dams with the highest possible rates of fish survival.

Ideological, Not Scientific

But at the end of the day, it appears we’ve come to a place now where no matter the progress we make, it will never be enough. This ideological, politically-based notion is clearly now an ultimatum. No matter what factual progress has been made or scientific achievements reached, those damn dams are still going to figuratively stand in the way of far too many people acknowledging that good work is being done and even more can be achieved, together.

I throw in that bit of levity because I don’t know what else to do when dealing with absolutists. It is evident that if these four dams were to be taken out, they’ll come for the next four. Our friends at the Yakama Nation already made that clear last year with their announcement that the four lower Columbia River Dams must be removed.

And I recognize Mr. Simpson in his proposal has tried to provide a compromise by saying ok, take these four and then that’s it – but that’s simply not how the world works. We’ve already seen many of these groups come out to say it’ll never be enough for them. So we’ll be right back in the same cycle we’re already in – only we’ll have caused serious damage along the way.

Why would the communities I represent ever decide to invest in a plan that has profound impacts on their lives and livelihoods when so many radical groups from across the country, who have no stake in our communities, no ties to our region, and no interest in finding true solutions together, are hellbent on litigating simply for the sake of litigating, no matter what?

The approach for many on these issues is no longer scientific or based on facts. It’s based on emotion, on hyperbole, on appealing to the lowest common denominator. Lynda Mapes’ gripping yet highly editorialized “reporting” of Tahlequah attracts a heck of a lot more clicks than the year-to-year progress updates on fish returns.

Dr. Peter Kareiva, the former Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy and previous Director of Conservation Biology at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center states, “it has become clear that salmon conservation is being used as a ‘means to an end’ as opposed to an ‘end’ of its own accord.” That end is dam removal, and it has become the singular ideological driver in these matters.

He argues that symbolism is visceral and compelling, and that is what the majority of dam -breaching advocates rely upon.

As Dr. Kareiva states, “Symbolism makes everything a black-or-white choice. It also makes it harder to negotiate and sustain solutions that must satisfy diverse stakeholders with diverse values. … It need not simply be a choice between fish and hydropower. … Solutions, not symbols, are what we need.” I could not agree more.

Idaho Impacts

Before I close by highlighting the solutions I think we need to be focusing on and investing more in, there are a few claims about the river system that I know many Idahoans have tried to set the record straight on.

A predominant claim made is that Idaho doesn’t receive enough benefits from the river power system, and that it’s unfair or lopsided. The argument has been repeatedly made that Idaho sends over 400,000 acre feet of “Idaho’s own water” down the river system to flush salmon through the dams, and that this water could be kept in Idaho for its own farming and water needs.

In contrast, over two dozen groups from the great state of Idaho, including the Idaho Grain Producers, Idaho Water Users, and Idaho Farm Bureau, have written that these provisions are components of the Snake River Water Rights Agreement – an agreement that not only identified and decreed tribal water rights for the Nez Perce – but also, as they write, protects Idaho’s water users, provides economic benefits to Idaho’s water users, and is a voluntary tool that offers security to Idaho’s water users throughout the state. In another letter sent just last month, the three Idaho groups I just named directly state, “Idaho’s water is not at immediate risk of being taken away from Idaho irrigators. … Any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.”

It has also been claimed that Idaho’s need for barging has decreased and that the state’s agriculture sector is not necessarily reliant upon the river highway system. These Idaho groups again write that in 2017, Lewis Clark Grain Terminal, located at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho’s only seaport, shipped over 20.6 million bushels of wheat and barley to international markets. Replacing these barges with other modes of transportation would not only drive down wheat prices, but it would cripple Idaho’s farming communities and devastate the 4,500 Idaho farm families who rely on the river navigation system to get their crops to market.

This also highlights another significant argument against tearing down our clean and renewable energy infrastructure: the increased emissions that will stem from such a misguided action. As dozens of associations across the Northwest wrote our congressional delegation earlier this year, 149,000 semi-trucks would be needed to move the cargo that went by barge in 2018. It is estimated that over 860,000 tons of increased carbon emissions would be added annually to our air. The environmental impact of such a drastic increase cannot be overstated – and I sincerely and fundamentally struggle to understand how our friends in the environmental community can hear this data and not be truly alarmed.

Fish Solutions & Conclusions

From false claims being corrected by Idahoans across many important sectors, to the resolution passed by Idaho’s state legislature opposing the breaching of the Snake River dams, the arguments continue to stack up in opposition to both the framing of – and the content within – Mr. Simpson’s proposal.

But as I stated, I did not simply come here today to oppose his efforts, but rather to again assert that there are solutions that our region is continuously implementing, and there’s far more to be done. One of the fundamental frustrations many of us have is the continued impulse to reinvent the wheel. NOAA has already developed comprehensive recovery plans for our native fish species, and we need to keep our eye on the ball to implement them.

Breaching these four dams without considering the impacts of the river system as a whole is not only misguided, but it is dangerous – to our economy, to our environment, and to our way of life in the Pacific Northwest. Proposing breaching these dams without addressing the lack of fish ladders at Idaho dams is comparable to the struggle I have been having with legislators and environmental groups in my own state who have been trying to breach our dams without addressing the millions of gallons of raw sewage dumped into the Puget Sound each year.

Just think if we were utilizing this conference to coalesce the entire Northwest delegation around fully funding these programs – these programs which recognize the complexities and comprehensive nature of the challenges facing our fish species.

I go back again to the history up until today, and it is miraculous the struggles our native fish have gone through. From the historic logging practices that destroyed spawning habitat along our riverbeds, to the many predation challenges – be it orcas or sea lions or avian predators – to ocean conditions and climate change impacts, to disease challenges to the history of fish farms and egg transfers to the fishing and harvest impacts. All of these issues collectively impact salmon populations, and based upon the scientific information stemming from these impacts, NOAA has developed the strategic plans to address these historic impacts and the current challenges facing the species today.

Instead, we have proposals like the Four Governors Agreement signed last year that once again shifts our focus and distracts from implementing the strategic plans already developed. Why are we continuing to layer on new courses of action – almost like the latest shiny object that distracts us – when we already have a statutory process that has developed comprehensive plans through collaboration and consultation with states, tribes, and the many partners in our region who study and implement these important conservation efforts?

That is where I believe our focus should be; that is where I believe everyone listening today could truly move the needle in coalescing our delegation and utilizing the vast array of leadership and experience Mr. Simpson points out our delegation currently holds in Washington, D.C. These are complex challenges that need comprehensive solutions.

To be clear: I’m not advocating that we tear out the Boise Airport!

Dividing our region, pointing fingers at one another’s backyards – that is only going to hurt our ability to move forward on securing true progress. Let’s stop reinventing the wheel and instead implement the plans developed and allow them to actually demonstrate progress achieved through science, facts, and data – not hyperbole, emotions, or ideologically-driven arguments. Thank you.

Background:

The conference featured opening remarks by Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Shannon Wheeler, two additional keynote addresses by Reps. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and a panel discussion featuring Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes, Vice President of Federal Programs for the Tri-City Development Council David Reeploeg, CEO of Seattle City Light Debra Smith, COO of the PNW Farmers Cooperative Sam White, and CEO of Trout Unlimited Chris Wood.

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