Speaking up for salmon

·4 min read

Sep. 23—Young people from Lewiston and throughout the Pacific Northwest will gather at Hells Gate State Park on Saturday to advocate for salmon and the removal of the four dams that made the community a seaport.

The debate over the best way to save wild salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Snake River and its high-elevation tributaries, and whether the lower Snake River should be restored to its free-flowing state for their benefit, is more than three decades old now. It was raging before many of the participants in Saturday's event were born.

Growing up immersed in the debate, they have staked a position. Some of them were born into it, like members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation's Youth Leadership Council. They have been circulating a dam-breaching petition for nearly two years and have gathered just shy of 23,000 signatures. They plan to submit it to President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The petition drive was recently boosted when the rock band Pearl Jam highlighted the effort on social media. The kids have also reached out to the president in a separate letter.

"America made a deal and promised that we would be able to fish forever. We can't fish if there aren't any salmon left," they said in the message sent to Biden.

Scout Alford started the Lewiston chapter of The Youth Salmon Protectors, a group under the umbrella of the Idaho Conservation League with chapters throughout the Northwest that advocate for wild fish recovery. The 16-year-old junior at Lewiston High School said she is passionate about the outdoors and has a desire to protect the planet. Why not, she said, work on an issue that is so central to her community?

"I've lived at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers for almost all of my life," said Alford, who is the daughter of Nathan Alford, editor and publisher of the Tribune, and Joanna Alford, digital marketing strategist for the Tribune. "Salmon have always been something that has been prominent in my life. What better way to contribute to protecting the environment than protecting something that has been so close to me?"

Alford also wants to advocate for her neighbors — tribes like the Nez Perce, with treaty rights to fish for salmon and steelhead.

As much as adults argue over the fish, Alford said she hasn't received negative feedback from fellow students.

"People around my age don't really say anything about it. I think people just don't realize it's an issue."

Tanya Riordan of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition based out of Spokane said young people bring vitality and urgency to environmental issues that often proves influential.

"I think young people have an advantage in that they really speak from the heart in a less filtered way than we do as adults on a lot of these issues," she said. "Because of that, they change hearts and minds in their communities, in their peer groups and of policymakers, very effectively."

Saturday's event that will feature both youth and adult, Native and non-Native speakers, is aimed at elevating the issue. Shannon Wheeler, vice chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, is slated to speak. Other speakers included members of the Umatilla Tribes' youth leadership council, Alford and Nez Perce elders.

The celebration starts at 10 a.m. with time reserved for young people from various locations and cultures in the Northwest to meet and network with each other. The formal celebration kicks off at 11 a.m. with a series of speakers and will be followed by a served lunch at about 12:30 p.m. A salmon ceremony on the river with canoes will happen after lunch and there will be a community mural project.

The celebration will happen in the midst of the fall chinook fishing season and the front end of the steelhead fishing season. Returns of spring and summer chinook, sockeye and fall chinook are higher this year than they have been during the previous five-year period that was marked by poor ocean conditions and alarming low runs. But the returns, dominated by hatchery fish, remain protected under the Endangered Species Act and well short of recovery goals.

Alford said the group hopes the celebration will help raise awareness among her peers and others in the community.

"It's just to make a call to action and make our presence be known and that we as Idahoans, tribal youth and youth in general don't want salmon to go extinct," she said.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.