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Tribes celebrate historic deal with White House that could save Pacific Northwest salmon

FILE - This Oct. 24, 2006 file photo shows file photo shows the Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River in Pasco, Wash.  (AP Photo/Jackie Johnston, File)
Jackie Johnson
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AP
FILE - This Oct. 24, 2006 file photo shows file photo shows the Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River in Pasco, Wash. (AP Photo/Jackie Johnston, File)

BOISE, Idaho — The White House has reached what it says is an historic agreement over the restoration of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, a deal that could end for now a decades long legal battle with tribes.

Facing lawsuits, the Biden administration has agreed to put some $300 million toward salmon restoration projects in the Northwest, including upgrades to existing hatcheries that have helped keep the fish populations viable in some parts of the Columbia River basin.

The deal also includes a five year stay on litigation, and a pledge to develop more tribally-run hydropower projects and study alternatives for farmers and recreators should Congress move to breach four large dams on the Snake River, a Columbia tributary, that tribes say have long been the biggest impediment for the fish.

"Many of the Snake River runs are on the brink of extinction. Extinction cannot be an option," says Corrine Sams, chair of the wildlife committee of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The agreement stops short of calling for the actual breaching of those four dams along the Lower Snake in Washington state. Biden administration officials insisted to reporters in a call Thursday that the President has no plans to act on the dams by executive order, rather they said it's a decision that lies solely with Congress.

Salmon were historically abundant in the Salmon River in central Idaho.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
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NPR
Salmon were historically abundant in the Salmon River in central Idaho.

A conservation bill introduced by Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson to authorize the breaching of the dams has been stalled for more than a year, amid stiff opposition from Northwest wheat farmers and utility groups.

When the details of Thursday's salmon deal were leaked last month, those groups claimed it was done in secret and breaching the dams could devastate the region's clean power and wheat farming economies that rely on a river barge system built around the dams.

"The agreement announced by the Biden Administration commits the U.S. Government to spending hundreds of millions of dollars that will ultimately end up being paid by electricity consumers in communities throughout the West," said Heather Stebbings, interim executive director of Northwest RiverPartners in a statement.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.