White House, tribal leaders hail ‘historic’ deal to restore salmon runs in Pacific Northwest

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, third from left, stands with Chair Gerry Lewis of the Yakama Nation, fourth from left, as they and others pose for a photo following a ceremonial signing ceremony in Washington, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. The ceremonial signing is an agreement between the Biden administration and state and Tribal governments to work together to protect salmon and other native fish, honor obligations to Tribal nations, and recognize the important services the Columbia River System provides to the economy of the Pacific Northwest. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration, leaders of four Columbia River Basin tribes and the governors of Oregon and Washington celebrated on Friday as they signed papers formally launching a $1 billion plan to help recover depleted salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest.

The plan, announced in December, stopped short of calling for the removal of four controversial dams on the Snake River, as some environmental groups and tribal leaders have urged. But officials said it would boost clean energy production and help offset hydropower, transportation and other benefits provided by the dams should Congress ever agree to breach them.


The plan brokered by the Biden administration pauses long-running litigation over federal dam operations and represents the most significant step yet toward eventually taking the four Snake River dams down. The plan will strengthen tribal clean energy projects and provide other benefits for tribes and other communities that depend on the Columbia Basin for agriculture, energy, recreation and transportation, the White House said.

“Since time immemorial, the strength of the Yakama Nation and its people have come from the Columbia River, and from the fish, game, roots and berries it nourishes,” Yakama Nation Chairman Gerald Lewis said at a White House ceremony.

“The Yakama Nation will always fight to protect and restore the salmon because, without the salmon, we cannot maintain the health of our people or our way of life,” Lewis said, adding that Columbia Basin salmon are dying from the impacts of human development.

“Our fishers have empty nets and their homes have empty tables because historically the federal government has not done enough to mitigate these impacts,” he said. “We need a lot more clean energy, but we need to do development in a way that is socially just.”

Lewis was among four tribal leaders who spoke at the hourlong ceremony at the White House complex, along with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and an array of federal officials.

The agreement, formally known as the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative, “deserves to be celebrated,” said Jonathan W. Smith, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.

The settlement “takes the interests of all the stakeholders in the Columbia Basin into account,” he said. “It lays out a pathway to restore salmon and steelhead to healthy and abundant levels and moves forward with the necessary green energy transition in a socially just and equitable way.”

Corinne Sams of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation called the signing ceremony a historic moment, not just for the tribes, but also for the U.S. government “and all Americans in the Pacific Northwest. My heart is big today.”

The Columbia River Basin, an area roughly the size of Texas, was once the world’s greatest salmon-producing river system, with at least 16 stocks of salmon and steelhead. Today, four are extinct and seven are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

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