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‘Devastating impacts’: Idaho Gov. Little opposes Simpson’s plan to breach Snake River dams
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‘Devastating impacts’: Idaho Gov. Little opposes Simpson’s plan to breach Snake River dams

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Congressman hopes politics align on divisive Northwest dams

In this May 15, 2019, file photo, the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is seen from the air near Colfax, Wash.

BOISE — Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Thursday spoke out in opposition to an Idaho congressman’s $33.5 billion plan to remove four Lower Snake River dams in efforts to save endangered salmon.

In a new statement, Little praised U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson “for all the work he has done on behalf of the people of Idaho,” but said his position on removal of the dams remains unchanged.

“I remain unconvinced that breaching the dams is a silver bullet for salmon recovery,” Little said. “Breaching the dams would have devastating impacts on Idahoans and vital segments of Idaho’s economy.”

Little’s new statement is a shift from an initial response that seemed to signal an openness to Simpson’s plan.

Little, a Republican like Simpson, is the first governor in the region to publicly oppose the infrastructure proposal that involves the breaching of four Snake River dams in Washington state and a herculean effort at compromise between conservation groups and economic interests. Included in that effort are a moratorium on litigation from conservation groups, a license extension of Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon Complex, energy replacements for the Bonneville Power Administration and alternatives to barge shipping on the Snake River.

The plan also attempts to give tribal councils more power. Three tribes — the Nez Perce, Yakama Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — have come out in support of Simpson’s proposal.

Simpson’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

What will Little’s take mean for Simpson plan?

Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, which championed Simpson’s plan earlier this month, said he’s “disappointed but not surprised” at Little’s statement.

“I think the Simpson proposal is pretty comprehensive and so very different from what the region has seen and talked about for the last 20 years,” Hayes said in a phone interview. “I understand how people are reacting to 20 years of this issue, not simply to congressman Simpson’s proposal.”

Hayes said he was struck by Little’s statement that breaching the dams would not be a “silver bullet” for salmon recovery. Hayes was one of nearly two dozen stakeholders who met for 18 months as part of Little’s salmon work group discussing collaborative ways to restore the threatened fish species.

“I think that’s what the governor’s work group said — that there is no silver bullet,” Hayes said. “And that’s why the proposal is so comprehensive and touches so many parts of the issue from the coast to Idaho.”

The governor’s stance could prove important in implementing Simpson’s proposal. Simpson has said a bill crafted by the bipartisan Pacific Northwest congressional delegation could have proposals from the governors of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana worked into it.

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Little referred to work with the regional governors in Thursday’s statement, alongside his salmon work group, and said he was “confident we are moving in the right direction.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who supports the plan, said earlier this month that she believed it would bring necessary economic investments to the region and rights for Indigenous people. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who like Brown is a Democrat, praised Simpson’s “willingness to think boldly” in his proposal and said he would ensure Washington’s interests are represented. Inslee stopped short of outright supporting the plan, but he has been critical in the past of plans that sidestep breaching the dams.

Support, criticism for breaching the dams

Hayes said he believes it will take time for stakeholders to fully digest the massive plan, which would unfold over a decade. Little’s reticence certainly doesn’t spell the end for the idea, which could take months to make its way to Congress.

“No one statement from any one part is going to shove this thing forward or pull this thing back,” Hayes said.

Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Shannon Wheeler said Thursday that Simpson’s plan is what’s needed if salmon advocates want any hope of restoring the population. Wheeler said that although Simpson’s proposal might not be enough, it’s been proved that “if it doesn’t work, then we’re in the same situation we are now,” Wheeler said.

“I think … as long as we speak the truth, and provide the information with all the facts, that the truth will prevail. That’s what we hope happens now.”

The Idaho River Community Alliance, which represents communities from Riggins through the Lewiston area, has been hesitant to support dam breaching in the past, but changed tunes to Simpson’s plan.

Roy Akins, the alliance’s Riggins chapter director, said Simpson’s plan is the best he’s seen, allowing the group to “see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

“We’ve always felt like we need to do things that are in the best interests of everybody,” Akins said. “The only path forward is that we find a way to make everybody better off. … We feel like this is the best option for everybody to move forward.”

Several Idaho state lawmakers, however, have voiced their disapproval for the plan. Republican representatives Judy Boyle, Laurie Lickley, Marc Gibbs and Clark Kauffman each issued statements in newsletters to constituents, according to Idaho Reports.

Boyle, of Midvale, accused Simpson of creating the proposal “to hand out taxpayer money like candy in order to buy ‘support’ for his dam breaching pipe dream.”

The representatives called into question whether breaching would truly benefit salmon and lamented the potential loss of hydropower from the dams and increased traffic from the loss of cargo barging.

Lickley, of Jerome, said she would potentially meet with Idaho legislative leaders to craft a resolution opposing Simpson’s proposal. Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, appeared on Twin Falls-based KLIX conservative talk radio on Wednesday to blast the plan, which he said “smacks of having gone to the state of Oregon, the state of Washington, all the NGOs (non-governmental organizations), which is code for all the environmental groups,” rather than the interests of Idaho stakeholders.

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