PORT TOWNSEND — Salmon — and the web of life surrounding them — have been running through Heidi Eisenhour’s life since she was a 3-year-old on her family’s commercial fishing boat.
So when U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, proposed the Columbia Basin Fund, a massive package to include breaching the four Lower Snake River dams and rebuilding the infrastructure across the region, Eisenhour spoke up.
The newest member of the Board of Jefferson County Commissioners penned a letter to Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose 6th Congressional District includes Clallam and Jefferson counties, in support of Simpson’s controversial plan — and got her fellow commissioners’ unanimous backing.
“We are motivated to write this letter as active advocates of salmon recovery and supporters of tribes in our region. We should all raise our hands to ensure [the Columbia Basin Fund] receives the early support it deserves,” states the letter signed by Eisenhour and commissioners Kate Dean and Greg Brotherton.
“We’ve seen firsthand the benefits of restoring healthy rivers via the effects of the historic removal of the dams on the Elwha River. Scientists have marveled at the recovery of the Elwha ecosystem,” it continues.
“But it’s not just the promise of salmon recovery that makes this proposal appealing. It is its potential to bring our region together instead of leaving us divided. This proposal could move Northwest people from a history of conflict to a future of collaboration.”
Simpson’s plan, outlined on the Republican congressman’s website, also calls for investment in infrastructure to replace the Lower Snake dams’ hydroelectric power with other energy sources. The fund also addresses flood control, farm irrigation and grain transportation for a package to cost some $33 billion.
Kilmer, in a response emailed to the Peninsula Daily News, wrote he’s “committed to working with folks in our communities and my colleagues in Congress to support a regional dialogue,” one that’s grounded in science and that honors tribal treaty rights.
“Rep. Simpson’s framework offers a lot of substance for our regional stakeholders to consider, but there is still an enormous amount of work to do,” Kilmer added.
“Ultimately it is up to the stakeholders and communities in our region to come to the table … I am a willing partner in this process,” he wrote.
Yet, “it is absolutely imperative that any future federal actions are based both on sound science and on consensus recommendations from the region.”
On the North Olympic Peninsula, where salmon are a keystone of the economy as well as the environment, other officials are either opposed to breaching the Lower Snake River dams or taking no position.
The Clallam County Public Utilities District commissioners voted 2-1 last month to keep the dams and their hydroelectric power generation intact.
At meetings of the Jefferson PUD Commission, “the Snake River Dams and the Simpson proposal have been mentioned,” president Dan Toepper wrote in an email, “but, there was no discussion by the board to take a position on either topic at this time.”
Mark Ozias of the Clallam County board of commissioners sent a one-sentence email: “We have no plans to take a position on Rep. Simpson’s proposal at this point.”
Eisenhour asserts now is the time.
“This is the beginning of the conversation,” she said, adding she knows how fierce the debate is among agricultural, energy generation and environmental interests.
“The moment we’re in right now,” Eisenhour said, is key as President Joe Biden advances a $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan.
Salmon recovery and reinvigoration of the Pacific Northwest economy, the interwoven pieces of Simpson’s proposal, should be part of the infrastructure discussion, she believes.
And while Eisenhour is aware the Jefferson County commissioners are a small, rural entity talking to the U.S. Congress, she considers it appropriate to “put a stake in the ground” on behalf of salmon — and all of the aspects of life with which they intersect.
“This could be our chance,” she said.
“We want to be an added set of voices.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]