Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Glimpses through a knothole

From fly fisherman’s perspective, fishing the Snake River in its current form for Steelhead is about like looking through a hole in a fence. You catch small glimpses of what it was, and you keep peering for more with the hope you find what could be.

Steelhead on their return to their ancestral spawning grounds are met with lakes where fast flowing current should have been. To me, it’s a miracle that their noses guide them back to the rivers of their birth, hatchery or not. From the Snake’s termination with the mighty Columbia back upstream, the water flows like molten lava. It’s moving, slowly.

But, there are the glimpses that us fisherman still hold onto. Get upriver of Lewiston and Clarkston and the river does all it can to regain it’s original form. The low water of fall showcases islands creases and runs in the water that all fishing brethren look for as signals of Steelhead and Salmon holding water. It’s where we guide our flies into with the promise that we find a connection. It’s these small snapshots of what the river did look like and what it could look like that hold’s the rivers ultimate promise for tomorrow.

It’s where we hope for a better day ahead.

Josh Mills is an avid eastern Washington angler and writer who has spent many hours on the Snake, Clearwater and Grande Ronde rivers fishing for steelhead, smallies, and any other fish that are game to take a fly. For more of his great adventures visit his blogspot at

The floor, not the ceiling

Salmon returns in the Columbia and Snake Rivers
This summer, the Columbia-Snake River Basin is witnessing a very positive return of salmon and steelhead. Scientists credit favorable ocean conditions, along with the court-ordered spill of water over some of the basin’s dams, for swelling the ranks of fish.
The increases in spill (the good kind) — won in court by Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition members alongside the legal team at Earthjustice — helps many more baby salmon survive their epic migrations from mountain streams to the sea where they grow to adulthood. Scientists also credit this spill with significantly contributing to a chinook salmon return currently 140 percent above the 10-year average and a sockeye run breaking modern records.

For those working to restore vibrant runs of salmon to the Columbia-Snake, this year’s salmon returns offer a glimpse of what could be achieved if we follow science to protect what was once the world’s most productive salmon watershed. For the communities that rely on these fish, and for the durability of the Endangered Species Act, these returns should represent the floor, not the ceiling, as we assess the recovery of Columbia-Snake salmon and the economic, cultural, and ecosystem needs of the region.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tom O'Keefe from American Whitewater

When Lewis and Clark descended the lower Snake River corridor they encountered a landscape of canyon lands, deep draws, beaches, river islands and rapids. The lower Snake here is a big river. It is the largest tributary to the Columbia swelling to 180,000 cubic feet per second in a high water year, and its rapids and whirlpools were feared and respected as hazards to be negotiated with care and attention. Many of the rapids were later named for people or features in the landscape. Names like Log Cabin Rapids, Little Pine Tree Rapids and Haunted House Rapids were common.

A shot of the Lower Snake River before the construction of Lower Granite Dam in 1969. Courtesy of the University of Idaho, Special Collections, Kyle Laughlin Collection.

However, with the completion of Lower Granite Dam in 1975 over fifty rapids fell silent under the still waters of the reservoirs. These went missing along with numerous river islands, beaches, river bars and riparian forests so familiar to the large rivers of the Columbia Basin and the inter-mountain west.

Lower Granite Dam. Northwest Discovery Water Trail

A shot of the Lower Snake River before construction of Lower Monumental Dam in 1969.
Courtesy of the University of Idaho, Special Collections, Kyle Laughlin Collection.

Today a healthy discussion is taking place that reconsiders the values that these rivers, their rapids and boat-able corridors that they provide. This discussion warrants a healthy, clear-eyed look at the real values of rivers and what they bring to the citizens of Washington State in the way of long term, durable recreation benefits and quality of life. This is especially important as more people seek out places where they can enjoy clean, flowing rivers and the sporting experiences they provide.

The lower Snake is just such a place that needs a careful re-examination of the values it delivers to Washington residents, and its potential to deliver much more than it currently does. To river runners, this corridor could provide an amazing “big river” experience that is currently very hard to find in America let alone the Northwest. Dispersed campgrounds and developed facilities that allow river access, put-ins, take outs and the potential for a major contiguous, uninterrupted float from Hells Canyon to the mouth of the Columbia River. Currently the river is segmented and non-motorized boaters must portage around four large dams as they are discouraged from “locking through”.

Photo of a little used, lonely portage site on LSR reservoir.
Courtesy of Northwest Discovery Water Trail
As society examines the investments of an earlier age and necessarily questions the values that each dam brings us, it is easy to see the free flowing lower Snake River corridor as an amazing resource both economically and socially for Washington State. I encourage you to join the dialogue and debate about the enormous potential that this river might once again bring to boaters and citizens of all stripes across Washington State and the west. The time is right to become involved.

Thomas O’Keefe is the Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater

Waterfront Visions: landscape architecture visions of a free-flowing lower Snake River

When developed with foresight and community values in mind, waterfronts have provided many cities and towns the foundations for creating economic synergy and livable cities.  Thoughtfully developed waterfronts can mean access for recreation and relaxation, public space that pull people together, uniting green and public spaces with urban energy.

The Lewiston Clarkston Valley in southeastern Washington is no exception.  The Clearwater and Snake Rivers offer extraordinary potential to create livable, public spaces that enhance economic development.

In 2009, a class of WSU Landscape Architecture students studied the Lewiston Waterfront and developed a series of design concepts that serve as a starting point for envisioning the opportunities that a free flowing waterfront presents.   After studying social, environmental dynamics, talking to residents, and experts they developed water front design concepts that can be used to:
  • Start a community dialogue on the kinds of opportunities and benefits that a restored waterfront might provide.
  • Generate ideas about the kinds of infrastructure needs and developments and investments that would be needed for the communities of Clarkston and Lewiston to put these communities in an advantageous economic position were the Federal government to remove the four lower Snake River dams.
  • In one case, the designs outline a scenario of expanding levees for flood protection and enable citizens to envision what their community might look like if the USACE affects a solution of levee raising.

Visit to see more innovative and creative ideas for Lewiston’s downtown waterfront.

Paul Fish: kayaking a free-flowing Snake River

Paul Fish is the CEO of Mountain Gear based in Spokane, WA

Paul Quinnett on recreation potential of a free-flowing Snake River

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The (Scenic) Highway to Hell

The Columbia and Snake Rivers are slated to be the conveyor belt for one of the world's largest intentional environmental disasters.

by Pat Ford, Executive Director of Save Our Wild Salmon - July 13, 2010

The mighty Columbia-Snake watershed is facing another huge challenge. An oil company focused on profits and a government failing its duties to people has reared a new threat to wild salmon and local communities. It comes in two parts – development of the Canadian oil sands beneath the boreal forests of northern Alberta, and Exxon's surprise plan to use the Columbia and Snake Rivers, plus Idaho and Montana highways, to ship huge mining machinery to those oil sands.


Canadian oil sands development is one of the largest, most destructive industrial projects on earth. Millions of acres of northern boreal forest is being strip-mined for bitumen that holds oil in a solid form. The oil is cooked out through a process that uses water equivalent to a city of roughly 2 million people. Toxic wastewater leaks directly into the environment at a rate of over 2.8 million gallons a day.

The oil is then shipped in a continent-wide network of pipelines and tanker ports into the global oil market. Some of this vast web is in place; the rest is being built as fast as Canadian and American governments issue permits. Once at full scale, the development and its tentacles will operate for nearly half a century.

Along with its direct damage to lands, waters, fish and wildlife, traditional ways and nature-based economies, the oil sands (also called tar sands) is one of the single largest contributors on earth to climate disruption. As NASA climate scientist James Hansen says, "the tar sands constitute one of our planet's greatest threats. They are a double-barreled threat. First, producing oil from tar sands emits two to three times the global warming pollution of conventional oil. But [it] also diminishes one of the best carbon reduction tools on the planet: Canada's Boreal Forest."

That double-barreled harm hits wild salmon. Damage to salmon and steelhead habitats, fresh and salt, caused by climate change is now occurring, more is already inevitable, and many of the salmon affected are already endangered. Which means wild salmon need the carbon-storing boreal forest, and don't need oil whose burning will do three times worse harm to waters than past oil burning.

One of the pipelines nearing approval, the Northern Gateway pipeline to the British Columbia coast, will also harm salmon the old-fashioned way. It crosses and will degrade important salmon habitats, and oil tanker traffic to come in its wake threatens salmon ecosystems all along the coast. Defending salmon habitats and economies is one reason Canadian First Nations, fishermen, and conservationists are fighting this pipeline.


Now another tentacle of the oil sands is poised for the Columbia Basin. This fall, Exxon plans to start shipping huge pieces of Korean-made mining machinery – two-thirds the length of a football field, three stories high, weighing up to 344,000 pounds – to the tar sands. Rather than use an established route through the Panama Canal, then north on designated "high and wide corridor" roads from Texas, Exxon is near gaining federal and state access to a new route: up the Columbia and Snake Rivers by barge to Lewiston, Idaho, then up the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway through wild areas along the Lochsa River in Idaho, then across 350 miles of Montana to Canada. The sole purpose of this new route appears to be to increase Exxon's profits.

The Lochsa River's endangered salmon and steelhead will be further risked by this project. Highway 12 snakes up the Lochsa along the Lewis & Clark Trail in a National Wild and Scenic River corridor. Any accident will damage salmon habitats when the machinery falls into the river, and damage them more with the excavation and grading needed to get such huge stuff out of the river. The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee has voted to oppose the project for this and other reasons.

It appears from the sparse public record that this will be a permanent industrial corridor to the oil sands for decades. (Exxon is providing little information, and the government less.) That will give the lower Snake dams, whose energy and agricultural uses can both be replaced, a new reason to exist for those decades – with the result, says the best science, that Snake River salmon and steelhead will soon not exist.

There is a last harm. Salmon mean health for watersheds and people. When salmon are endangered, the bonds among salmon, people, and the waters we both inhabit begin to fray in a cycle hard to reverse. This conjunction of massive oil development in Canada, global climate disruption, and an industrial corridor on the Columbia and Snake to enable both, will further that fraying, diminishing salmon and people, now and to come.


Take Action: Contact Secretary Ray LaHood, Secretary Nancy Sutley, and members of Congress here.

Share with your network: Please forward this link – to your friends and family. Urge them to take action.
Good citizen website. Chronicles work by people who live along and use the Lochsa River who suddenly find this project bearing down on them.
Pembina Institute in Vancouver has a website on the tar sands and its effects along the British Columbia coast.
U.S. effects of the tar sands (though so far without mention of Exxon's proposal) are featured on a joint website of some national conservation groups.
A link for the Declaration against the oil sands and Gateway Pipeline by nine First Nations on the British Columbia coast.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Orca Awareness Month; Why It Matters to Me

by Uko Gorter - July 1, 2010

It is my hope that with Governor’s Christine Gregoire’s proclamation of June as Orca Awareness Month in Washington State, more attention is given to the serious issues surrounding our endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. (Read the proclamation)

Since I was a young boy, growing up in my native Holland, I have been fascinated with cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises).  Now that I live in the Seattle area, that love for whales has developed into my current work as a natural history and scientific illustrator specializing in marine mammals.  It also led me to become involved with whale and dolphin conservation through the American Cetacean Society, and as such function as the president of the Puget Sound Chapter of American Cetacean Society’s Puget Sound Chapter.


Killer whales, better known as orca, are apex predators and tremendously important to the marine ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest.  Besides their biological significance, they also have an intrinsic value to our community at large.  Revered by coastal indigenous tribes through their culture and art, they are now the main focus of a well-established whale watch community. Living long complex social lives, killer whales speak to everyone’s imagination and serve as the best ambassador for our marine environment.

These animals inspire connections with people. They’ve prompted online hydrophones so people can listen for their distinctive vocalizations, and a sighting network to alert followers to their whereabouts.  And thanks to 30 years of photo surveys, each of these 90 or so whales is individually identifiable and named allowing scientists and others to see the family relationships among members of this community.

Chinook, or King salmon, are the prey of choice for our resident orca pods.  However, Chinook salmon itself is endangered, making the case for sweeping recovery measures that help both species.

Our Southern Resident killer whales face a number of challenges.  Becoming more aware of them is a good first step. But let’s keep in mind that they won’t recover – they will actually go extinct – if we don’t take aggressive action to save them.

In order to ensure an abundant supply of chinook salmon for the future of these orcas, the federal government needs to reform its salmon policies in the Columbia and Snake River Basin, and use the best available science to provide long term recovery of endangered salmon stocks. We need real leadership on the part of our Washington Senators to pull all stakeholders together and create solutions for salmon, orcas and people.

For more information on Southern Resident Killer Whales:
Read about the killer whale’s primary food and/or Read the federal SRKW Recovery Plan           

Uko Gorter at

A sample of Uko’s work:

More here:

To see the beautiful artwork of Coastal Salish Artist Joe Jack, please visit

On the site you can also read the ancient legend of the Cowichan Thunderbird and Orca.  This story figures deeply into the culture of coastal Salish indigenous people.