Eating our way out of extinction

Bruce Babbitt speaks for a strategy to bring down the Snake River dams and save our wild salmon – all while enjoying the taste of success.
Crosscut archive image.

A fish ladder on the dammed Columbia River. (Bonneville Power Administration)

Bruce Babbitt speaks for a strategy to bring down the Snake River dams and save our wild salmon – all while enjoying the taste of success.

Former Clinton-era Interior Secretary and ex-Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt was in Seattle late last week to speak about the benefits of removing the lower Snake River dams. He was part of a "Wheat, Wine and Wild Salmon" event hosted by the group Save Our Wild Salmon.

The group is trying to link the interests of farmers, fishermen, winemakers, and restaurateurs and chefs in preserving the Columbia-Snake Basin salmon and steelhead runs. All four of the Snake's remaining runs are threatened, as are 13 of the Columbia's. The group served wild salmon, local wines, and some Eastern Washington wheat products to highlight the connections and economic benefits of a thriving fish population and local agriculture. Farmers, fishermen, and chefs were there to meet the guests.

In a small press briefing before his talk, Babbitt said that one of the problems is that when "we settled the West, we left fishermen out of the equation." The Columbia-Snake Basin spans six western states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Wyoming, and Nevada. The dams, he says, "are about the viability of spawning salmon in the entire Rocky Mountain range." Those of us on the wet side of the Cascades don't necessarily think of the interior West as salmon country, and those in the interior don't factor fishing fleets into their agricultural equations.

From a strategic standpoint, thinking in terms of the economic ecosystem is an excellent strategy. Back in 2000, the Seattle City Council was slammed in the media on both sides of the Cascades for encouraging the breaching of the lower Snake River dams. The general complaint: Urban ignoramuses should mind their own business. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist wrote that "the Seattle City Council knows as much about the Snake River dams as a pig knows about Sunday school."

There is ignorance, but it's on both sides of the mountains. Babbitt has a long history of attempting to get economic and environmental concerns onto the same page to work out sustainable compromises. (He's also been criticized by some greens for the same.) He feels that many of the shipping and energy issues raised by removing the dams can be addressed – moving wheat by train is just about the same as moving it by barge, for example. Some energy and infrastructure investments could improve the situation at less cost than prohibitively expensive and perhaps futile salmon recovery efforts that keeping the dams necessitates.

Babbitt has been meeting with business and political leaders in Eastern Washington to find consensus about the dams. He mentioned meeting with Don Barbieri, Spokane civic leader, retired hotel magnate, and former Democratic candidate for Congress. He is somewhat encouraged by a slow change in the West's political climate. He cited as positive examples the election of rurally rooted Western Democrats like Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, both ranchers.

Babbitt says there are many people in the rural West who think the Bush administration has gone too far with its pro-industry policies, especially in the area of oil and gas leases. "I think the rural West is still conservative, but increasingly purple instead of red." (Babbitt, by the way, says he is staying out of making endorsements in the 2008 presidential race because he is chair of the U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Fund.)

Building awareness of economic links that could grow stronger with a healthy, recovered fish population is a way to get divided interests working toward a common goal. The growing movement toward local and craft food products (farmer's markets, organic food, artisnal breads, winemaking, microbrewing) is helping to reshape regional agriculture by creating consumer demand for new and specialized products.

More discriminating consumers, mostly in urban areas, are creating new markets for farmers and in some cases utterly transforming agricultural lands. It's not just the Internet server farms in Qunicy, Wash., that are changing the West. Transformed ag areas like the Yakima and Walla Walla valleys have become major winemaking (and touring) regions, and in the Palouse, some wheat growers are raising specialty grains for the Japanese or San Francisco bakers.

It might be too much to hope for – that we could, in essence, eat our way out of a salmon extinction problem. For one thing, the availability of gourmet wild salmon might give city-dwellers a false sense of security about the endangerment of fish. In a city like Seattle, where a median house sells for $500,000, there are enough consumers who'll pay any price to get a good piece of salmon. On the other hand, educating consumers about where their food comes from can help shift the economic equation. Increasing demand for local fish and locally produced foods is a boon to farms, east and west.

The hope for recovery of the Snake River salmon may be in a robust strengthening of the food chain, an area not of urban ignorance, but of urban expertise and enthusiasm.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.