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Originally published Sunday, November 23, 2014 at 4:04 PM

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Guest: How Alaska bucked the trend of salmon loss — but that’s in jeopardy

At a time of wild salmon recovery, Alaskans should heed history as they contemplate the prospect of a Susitna River dam, writes guest columnist David R. Montgomery.

Special to The Times

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The opinion column is correct. The people in charge of Alaska, (Governor, legislators, their friends and the people who... MORE
I believe most people in Alaska have the sense to know that a large dam on salmon bearing waters is a sure way to... MORE
@LookatBothSides There are watersheds that can be dammed with no impact on salmon populations. Southeast Alaska has the... MORE


THE rivers of the Northwest once teemed with wild salmon, providing nourishment for humans and ecosystems as far inland as the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho and even into Nevada. Today, we see salmon everywhere in Seattle. They are an iconic touchstone of our culture and way of life. But our rivers retain the impoverished legacy of decades of dam construction, habitat loss, excessive harvest and backfired attempts to sustain runs with hatcheries.

Recently, however, successful dam removals on the Elwha, White Salmon and Cedar rivers have resulted in near immediate recolonization by wild salmon in streams they have not inhabited for decades. This has given us all hope for recovery and highlighted opportunities to restore more rivers where obsolete dams block salmon from their habitat.

But a hard lesson to learn has been that it is cheaper in the long run not to destroy salmon runs in the first place. Large hydropower dams, often considered a sustainable source of clean energy, have eliminated habitat in more than 40 percent of the Columbia-Snake River Basin. The remaining salmon run a gantlet of dams, and the fish are routinely loaded into trucks and barges for transport around them.

This hasn’t worked out very well for the fish. The Columbia-Snake Basin is our nation’s most expensive endangered-species recovery program. Federal agencies have spent more than $13 billion in taxpayer and ratepayer dollars and not one of the basin’s endangered fish species has been recovered.

As the final holdout for wild salmon in the United States, Alaska has successfully managed its salmon habitat and fisheries, feeding and providing jobs for communities throughout the region. However, even Alaskan salmon are not immune to threats from new dams. In 2011, the state proposed construction of the first new mega-dam in the U.S. in more than 40 years in the heart of the Denali wilderness on the Susitna River. If built, the Susitna dam would be the second tallest dam in the U.S. and threaten wild salmon, wildlife and a way of life.

In the last three years, the state spent nearly $200 million in public funds supporting this proposed dam, with an estimated price tag of more than $5 billion. I am not an economist, and I don’t have a stake in Alaska’s current fiscal crisis, but as a Pacific Northwest scientist, I am all too familiar with the disappearance of salmon runs following construction of large dams — and how it has played out one dam at a time.

It is a story society is re-creating for the third time. The first was in the 1700s in Europe where overfishing and pollution, combined with dam construction, caused the demise of Atlantic salmon. Then, in the 1800s on North America’s east coast, dam construction and overfishing reduced once-annual runs of millions of Atlantic salmon, and thriving commercial harvests, down to almost nothing.

Over the past century, we have seen the same pattern of habitat loss and diminishing salmon returns march steadily northward, up our continent’s west coast where salmon are now estimated at just 7 percent of their historic abundance.

So far, Alaska has managed to buck this trend, leaving Alaskan decision-makers and the public that funds them the rare opportunity to maintain profitable and sustainable salmon returns. Currently, the Susitna supports five Pacific salmon species, including the state’s fourth largest run of chinook salmon. While some in the lower 48 states may have never heard of the Susitna River, one thing I know for sure, as we grapple with our own challenge of restoration and recovery, is that wild salmon is a resource worth protecting for future generations.

In an age when dams are coming down, and new, truly renewable energy sources are emerging, will Alaskans repeat the dismal history of salmon elsewhere in the world? Or will they make the difficult, but wise, decisions to balance the forward march of progress with the natural requirements of sustainable salmon runs?

David R. Montgomery is the author of “King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon,” and “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood.” He is a McArthur Fellow and Dean’s Professor of Geomorphology at the University of Washington.

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