A Washingtonian’s Guide to Snake River Salmon Geography

Chinook salmon leaping up Dagger Falls, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho

If you live or play in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably heard of the controversy surrounding the four Lower Snake River dams and their devastating impacts on Idaho’s salmon and steelhead populations. Conservationists have argued for decades that these four dams must be removed if these fish are to recover. Republican congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho came to the same conclusion more recently. And just this week, Washington Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee released a draft report concerning removal.

But despite all the recent attention and many excellent articles and resources, I find many people remain unclear on the fundamental geography of these rivers and dams. Washington residents especially are often not familiar with Idaho’s relevant (and confusing) geography. This page is my attempt to illustrate and clarify the terrain under discussion and to increase awareness of the remarkable wild river country beyond Washington’s eastern border.

So where exactly are we talking about?

Main Salmon River, Idaho

The area of fish habitat that would benefit from removal of the Lower Snake River dams encompasses most of central Idaho plus a respectable chunk of northeastern Oregon. We’re talking everything upstream of those four dams that does NOT have any other dams impeding fish passage. Sadly, and confusingly, this actually excludes most of the Snake River itself, which is dammed in Hells Canyon. It also excludes the North Fork of the Clearwater, which is blocked by Dworshak Dam. But this leaves a vast area and river mileage: the enormous and dam-free Salmon River drainage, the also quite sizeable Middle and South Clearwater, plus the Grande Ronde and Imnaha in Oregon.

The area looks approximately like this:

Let’s just superimpose that onto Washington:

Puget Sound to Idaho, Oregon to Canada – looks bigger already! This is the amount of fish habitat we’re talking about opening up again to the sea, approximately 26,000 square miles, a little bigger than West Virginia and larger than 75 of the world’s countries.

Here are a few other comparisons for anyone who may find them helpful:

Okay, fine, it’s big, but what’s actually there? Idaho is mostly potato farms, right?

Middle Fork Salmon canyon, Idaho

This area is mostly endless miles of deep river canyons, forest and rugged mountains. There’s a bit of farming, a bit more ranching, virtually no industry, but lots and lots of both legal and de facto wilderness. Excluding Lewiston and La Grande, the only substantial towns, both of which are on the area’s edges, the region’s population is about 50,000. This is a big, empty chunk of landscape.

And it’s full of wild, mostly unpolluted rivers. The Salmon and Clearwater fan out into a huge array of tributaries, most of them wild and healthy: the South Fork Salmon, the renowned Middle Fork, the North, East and Yankee Forks, the Secesh, the Pahsimeroi, the Lemhi, the Little Salmon, Rapid River, the South Fork Clearwater, the Lochsa and the unsurpassed Selway. Oregon’s Grande Ronde is fed by the Wallowa, Lostine, Minam and Wenaha. And each of these is fed by countless creeks, many of them nearly river-sized themselves. Most of these streams run cold and clear from high-elevation headwaters, with abundant cobble bar spawning beds waiting for fish that no longer arrive.

Cobble beds, Middle Fork of the Salmon

The region is also well-protected. The Selway, Lochsa, Main Salmon, Middle Fork, Rapid River, Imnaha, Lostine, Minam, Wenaha and Grande Ronde all have protections under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. And central Idaho has the largest complex of designated wilderness in the lower 48. This area once had huge fish populations and it could again be a major migratory fish stronghold if the salmon and steelhead could just get there.

If Idahoans are so concerned, why don’t they remove some of their own dams?

Selway River, Idaho

Which precise dams should they remove? I see this opinion expressed a lot in Washington, but it reveals a misunderstanding of the fundamental geography in play. Eight dams stand between the Salmon and Clearwater Rivers and the Pacific Ocean. Zero of those dams are in Idaho. The Salmon River drainage contains no dams at all, and only one Clearwater tributary is dammed. Fish on the John Day and Yakima Rivers only have to swim past three and four dams respectively, and they are doing much better than Idaho’s fish. Eight reservoirs is just too many. Dworshak Dam cut off some great fish habitat on the North Fork Clearwater, but removing it would achieve essentially nothing if the same eight dams are all standing downstream. And the rest of the Clearwater and Salmon drainages contain no dams at all – that’s why these drainages are so important as once and future habitat.

But the Hells Canyon Dams don’t even have fish ladders!

Rapid River, a Salmon tributary in the Hells Canyon region

Correct, but see above. The Hells Canyon dams did cut off some habitat (it was once even possible to catch salmon in northern Nevada), but again, improving fish passage there would make no difference with eight dams standing downstream.

A related point of confusion worth clarifying is that breaching the Lower Snake River Dams would not open habitat on the upper Snake and no one is claiming that it would. Breaching is intended to open habitat in the Clearwater and Salmon drainages, plus northeastern Oregon, which is much higher quality habitat anyway.

Crooked Creek, a tributary to Oregon’s Wenaha River

We should be working on pollution and fish habitat in Puget Sound!

I see this objection a lot from my congressional representative. Yes, we should. Puget Sound is important salmon habitat and improvements there are definitely a good thing. But the Salmon-Clearwater region is too large and high-quality a habitat to write off. Let’s look at another image of the area superimposed on western Washington this time:

Imagine the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound, the entire Central Cascades, Mount Rainier and the Goat Rocks and the Yakima Basin all being cut off from ocean connection. That is the scale of the ecological opportunity lost in Idaho due to the Lower Snake dams. Salmon are not so abundant in the Lower 48 that we can afford to give up on a habitat of this size and quality.

And remember, Puget Sound is full of people and industry. Central Idaho is not. It is far less polluted and better protected. The Frank Church, Selway-Bitterroot, Gospel Hump, Hells Canyon, Wenaha-Tucannon and Eagle Cap Wildernesses amount to over 4 million acres of protected landscape, waterways and headwaters. For comparison, all the Wilderness Areas of the Washington Cascades (and they are big) total 3,360,070 acres. In terms of American salmon habitat, cutting off Idaho from the sea was in many ways comparable to cutting off western Washington. We can’t afford to lose this region!

Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho

There’s also the issue of fairness to our neighbors and to Native Americans. People in Puget Sound would not react well to being told to give up on salmon and orcas because they can go see them in Alaska. Well, people in Idaho likewise should not be told to travel to the coast to fish for salmon that were once abundant in their own backyard. And our nation promised the Nez Perce people fishing rights in their own homeland. Washingtonians should be better neighbors and acknowledge that these four dams greatly diminish Idaho ecology and recreation and Nez Perce heritage while mostly benefiting only southeast Washington.

Grand Salmon – Source to Sea paddle team meets with Nez Perce representatives in Lewiston, Idaho, June 11, 2022

But doesn’t climate change mean salmon are doomed anyway? And what about sea lion predation and overfishing?

Middle Fork Salmon headwaters, cool even in summer

Rising temperatures are precisely why we need Idaho as a salmon refuge. Thanks to high-elevation headwaters and swift flow, Idaho’s rivers are better able to stay cool all summer than lower, slower rivers to the west. Water temperatures in the Lower Snake and Columbia reservoirs are cooking migrating fish, but a free-flowing Snake giving access to high-quality, high-elevation habitat would significantly improve the picture.

And threats like increasing sea lion predation and commercial fishing issues are again precisely why we can’t afford to give up on the opportunity of Idaho’s vast and intact spawning habitat. All our northwestern salmon populations face these threats. To weather these challenges, we need more salmon refuges, not fewer.

The Salmon River, still big, wild and dam-free

*****

I hope at least a few readers find this helpful. It is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to the issue – if you’re looking for a deeper dive, there are many excellent resources available, some of which I will link below. My intent has simply been to clarify the confusing geography and resulting misconceptions and emphasize why Idaho, a state without a coastline, is so important to salmon discussions. I also respect the importance of Washington’s agriculture and care a great deal about Palouse growers and the beautiful landscape they farm. They are my neighbors and I want them to thrive. But the limited benefits of the Lower Snake dams come at much too high a cost. For any Washingtonians who wish to see salmon thrive for future generations, the time to tell this to our Washington politicians is now, this summer.

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Snowfields at Sunset

Hello readers, sorry I’m not more active photographically of late. Life has been hitting me hard. First in a good way: I started a wonderful new part-time job managing our town’s little rural library branch. Then the bad news started coming, with not one, not two, but three simultaneous situations involving medical emergencies for aging parents who live far away. It’s been rough, and photo stuff has not been making my priority list recently. I hope things will simmer down and I’ll be back to it in time, but the fact is that this may be a sparse year for my photo ambitions. For now, here’s a bagatelle from a beautiful evening drive in January across northern Idaho’s Camas Prairie.

White Hills, White Sky

Living in the Palouse Hills often feels like dwelling in a work of abstract art. One can be surrounded by arrays of parallel curving lines of tilled fields, bulging volumes of countershaded green in summer, a matrix of gold stripes after harvest. But there’s a particular quality of light that happens here in the winter, when the hills have fresh snow and the sky takes on the exact same tone of white. There are a few perfect examples of such days each winter, and last Thursday was a truly excellent one.

All distinction between earth and atmosphere vanishes and only the faintest hints of contours remain visible.

The literal world recedes and one feels unmoored, drifting through abstract forms like the blowing snow, searching for a solid anchor to pin the land back into place.

Favorites of 2021

2021: I’m not sure what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it. As always, photography happened, though. Like last year, I mostly stuck to my home region. Summer’s record-breaking heat and seemingly endless smoke were challenging and definitely impacted some of my plans. But an unexpected opportunity to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon, a beloved river I hadn’t seen in ten years, was a most welcome surprise. I reconnected with some great old friends over the summer and made some new ones on the river. And I got to venture north and begin exploring the Idaho Panhandle and far northwest Montana, which together form a wonderful and fascinating geographic region that really needs a coherent, evocative name.

A couple notes:

  • Calendars – thank you everyone who bought one! Sales were substantial and represent significant support for my work, support that will help me pursue some goals this year. I won’t mention them again now that we’re well into ’22, but if you procrastinated or find yourself a calendar short, they’re still available. I’ll definitely be working on another for 2023.
  • Please sign up for my forthcoming email newsletter if you’re so inclined. I will certainly not be overwhelming your inbox, but I would like a more direct means to communicate with my kind followers. I have some modest ambitions and projects in mind, and I hope to be able to tell you about them reliably.
  • Also, if you haven’t taken a look at my main website in a while, please do! I substantially reorganized it this fall and it’s much better.

Without further ado, my personal favorites of the year gone by…

Deep winter, Idaho Palouse
Sunset color and winding Snake, Saqanma (i.e. Hells Canyon), Idaho
Reflected light on Snake River textures
Two trees, Hells Canyon, Idaho
Early spring, Whitman County, Washington
Dappled basin, Wallowa Mountains, Oregon
Water plants, Hurricane Creek, Wallowa Mountains, Oregon
Glassy entrance, Selway River, Idaho
Gleaming whitewater, Selway River, Idaho
Matt Ryan makes it look easy on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho
Cobble bar and bedrock ledge, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho
Tukudeka (Sheepeater Shoshone) rock art, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
Fancy dancer, Chief Lookingglass Powwow, Kamiah, Idaho
Survived the summer: autumn mist touches unburnt forest next to wildfire perimeter, Cabinet Mountains, Idaho
Lichen-strewn autumn: I loved this unusual fall color palette in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains
Bedrock and fall: river cascades under autumn foliage, northwest Montana
Red and jade: Again, I loved this peculiar color combination of leaves and lichen in the Washington Palouse

There’s a reason I seldom post these collections until well into January: I find I often have a bit of good luck in late December, and I need some time to process the results. So it proved this year. 2021 ended much as it began, photographically anyway, in a somber but beautifully snow-covered Palouse.

Sunrise through snowclouds, Latah County, Idaho

2021 Favorites: Eli

The annual Eli collection for friends, family and fans: once again, we stayed mostly in the Inland Northwest, though glimpses of Utah and the Pacific managed to sneak in. Our backpacking tally was down quite a bit from last summer (though our three trips were all outstanding), but this year we actually saw friends and family, a pleasant development. We homeschooled, survived the heat, climbed a respectable peak in the Wallowas, spent a lot of time in water, ate a ton of wild berries, inhaled too much inescapable wildfire smoke, rafted on the Clearwater, road tripped to New Mexico for Thanksgiving. Eli took acting classes, trained a cat to walk on a leash, resumed public school, swam in several frigid Idaho Panhandle lakes. It was a good year.

World Gone to White

The land is looking very seasonal and minimalistic on the Washington-Idaho border right now. Yesterday morning did show a little light (images coming soon), but mostly it revealed glorious sweeps of white emptiness.

Any winter could be the last for this old barn.

It snowed a lot more last night since I took these pictures. How minimalistic will the world get?

Light and Water

Selway River, Idaho

Only by living away from it for so long did I learn to see it again. Now, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of gazing at light playing with running water.

Hurricane Creek, Wallowa Mountains, Oregon
Ingalls Creek, Washington Cascades
Hurricane Creek, Wallowa Mountains, Oregon

Red Palouse Autumn

The Palouse region is not generally known for fall colors, but rather for hills and wheat. But there is color to be found and it was excellent this year.

I often feel that, for all the beauty of the Palouse hills, an important piece of the region’s spirit is hidden in the wooded slopes along its unassuming waterways and little valleys. That spirit was positively glowing in October.

I photographed this same aspen last year, at a little nature preserve near my home. It had a different feel this fall, with red shrubs in the background and just a couple leaves hanging on.

This deep red foliage beside jade-green lichen is a very exotic color palette to me, and I love it.

It had been many years since I’d had a really good season of fall color photography, and I was feeling a bit dejected at not being able to take a major autumn trip this year. But the local landscape surprised me, and it seemed to go on and on. I thought it was fading once, only to have an entire other layer of leaves light up even more brilliantly than the previous round. I get the sense that this year was rather exceptional, but I won’t make the mistake again of writing off autumn opportunities right here near home. This year’s season was an unexpected gift near the end of a challenging year.

Gleams in the Gloom

A pair of fairytale-ish images to round out the spooky season: I loved the soft light, deep shadows and small hints of autumn deep under the canopy in these dense cedar woods in northwestern Montana. In the image above, the hesitant patches of light seemed to beckon away from the trail to some unknown end in the forest. Below, I felt as though I had interrupted these three trees in a whispered conversation not meant for human ears.

Goblin

Cats are essentially house goblins. Happy Halloween!