Op-ed: OARS Idaho Regional Manager Curt Chang on the Snake Dam Removal Proposal

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Editor’s note: Congressman Mike Simpson is proposing a plan to restore salmon, create jobs, ensure affordable clean energy and revitalize the Snake River region’s economy by removing the four lower Snake River dams. Below is an op-ed by OARS Idaho Regional Manager Curt Chang on the proposal. Read full story on the proposal here: 

I was given the opportunity by legendary river-runner and conservationist Martin Litton to come to Idaho to begin river operations on the Snake River in Hells Canyon in 1972.

My job was to introduce our Grand Canyon dory boats to Idaho’s legendary rivers and share Idaho’s wild rivers with our guests. We started up the Idaho operation out of my family’s backyard in Clarkston, Washington, before moving across the Snake River to Lewiston, Idaho.

I remember those early trips in the ‘70s: beautiful, clear water, the exciting challenge of a new river, and remote, rugged and high-elevation landscapes keeping the crowds and heat at bay. The fishing was outstanding and many of our early guests couldn’t get enough of it.

As our business grew, we moved up the Salmon River drainage to offer Lower Salmon and Main Salmon river trips and into the southwest corner of Idaho and southeast corner of Oregon to run the Owyhee. Pretty early on, it made sense for us to offer guided fishing expeditions which were popular among guides and guests alike. Wherever we run, so do salmon and steelhead. They’re the linchpin to this place—they make our business and the Pacific Northwest what it is.

But as our boats and fellow outfitters have grown in numbers over the years, we’ve witnessed salmon populations plummet as the dam impacts took hold. Despite spending millions of dollars on failed plans to mitigate and restore fish runs the fact is that these fish are marathoners. Scientists agree that given a chance native salmon and steelhead could recover even now after 25 years of failed efforts to delay and create an impossible recovery scenario.

When you spend your life on rivers, it’s hard not to notice when something is wrong. We also do a lot of “what the heck do we do now?” kind of problem solving. And you know what? We usually find a way through it—creatively.

Idaho’s Snake River (photo courtesy Alison Meyer/American Rivers)

In my mind, that’s what Congressman Simpson and his staff must have thought when they started working on a solution to our salmon crisis. The problem and the solution are about a lot more than a fish. Urgent social, environmental and economic issues are at the center of it all. Solving this requires us to get uncomfortable, to be brave and bold in our thinking, and never has it been more vital to work together. The decisions we make in the next year will define our region.

Congressman Simpson’s comprehensive proposal shows how he is willing to look at all the impacts and stakeholders involved. This proposal won’t kill jobs—it will make them. Removing the four lower Snake River dams is not an impediment to our future—it’s the launching point. So now it’s time for the rest of us, especially our region’s elected leaders, to take a hard look at what Congressman Simpson has put forward.

I know it’s big and costly, but the benefits are real and would have such a positive impact on the whole Northwest. It’s not perfect, of course, and that’s why we need you. I may be able to guide folks down the river safely, but we need the leadership and expertise of our Northwest Members of Congress to get us through this challenge. It’s time for our leaders to help shape this into the infrastructure package that we need as a region to heal, recover and grow into a brighter future. And it’s our job, as business owners, community leaders in the Pacific Northwest Columbia Basin system to help make the case.

To our elected leaders: I urge you all to take a close look at this proposal and ask yourselves, do you really want to sacrifice these fish and turn away from this proposal that offers the potential for major growth and jobs in the Pacific Northwest area?

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring about the largest river restoration project in history. This is our shot. We’ve been advocating for action for a long time now and the writing is on the wall. If we find our way through, saving salmon might just be what saves us all.

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