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Groups Urge Action on Simpson NW Infrastructure Proposal

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Groups are urging Northwest leaders to act on U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson's infrastructure and Snake River dam proposal.

The plan would breach the four lower Snake River dams to help salmon, whose numbers have dwindled for years. It aims to restore what American Rivers calls in a report out this week, "the most endangered river in the country."

Julian Matthews, a Nez Perce tribal member and co-founder of the group Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, said the dams are harming tribal treaty rights to fish for salmon in the region.

"We didn't give them up and say, 'Well yeah, but if there's no fish, then we won't have that right'," he said. "We said that we have that right, and want to make sure that right is enforced by the federal government and our elected officials."

The proposal by Simpson, R-Idaho, has received criticism from some conservation groups that say its pause on litigation in the region lasts too long. The agriculture industry also has pushed back, saying breaching the dams would harm barging and irrigation. In a joint statement, U.S. senators from Oregon and Washington said all the region's stakeholders need to be heard before moving forward on this plan.

Sammy Matsaw, co-founder of the Shoshone-Bannock organization River Newe, said he hopes this proposal can be a step toward breaching the dams. He said the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have salmon-based cultures, with the fish as the basis of their knowledge systems and spiritual beliefs. The salmon's near-extinction is like a psychic wound for the region's indigenous people, Matsaw said, comparing the situation to western philosophy.

"When we lose our salmon, it's like losing Aristotle from your memory," he said, "and as time goes on, the less and less you're able to talk about Aristotle, the more and more your link to him as a philosopher and the underpinnings of your culture are gone forever."

Robb Krehbiel, Northwest representative for the group Defenders of Wildlife, pointed out that Simpson's proposal also includes plans to modernize the region's power grid, including through improved battery storage and energy efficiency.

"It would just be a total shame if our region and our political leaders missed the opportunity to advance these big priorities in the upcoming infrastructure bill," he said.

Some groups and tribes in the region are pushing for more negotiations on the proposal so it can be included in the Biden administration's infrastructure plan.