Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s draft report on the lower Snake River dams raises important questions about the future of our region’s salmon runs, energy and infrastructure. But one of the most important considerations in the report is the future of our rural economies — from here on the Pacific coast to the inland Northwest.

Commercial salmon fishermen and wheat growers have a lot in common. We work hard and we have deep pride and commitment to the land and waters we call home. We also face similar challenges when it comes to keeping our communities vital and thriving. Too often, we feel we’ve been left behind.

Governor Inslee’s report is timely because it seeks to increase understanding and raises questions that everyone who cares about the future of our rural economies should be asking. It complements the leadership that the State of Oregon, including Governor Brown, has played in fighting for rural communities and businesses dependent on salmon.

We need to recover our struggling salmon runs — our environment, economy, jobs and heritage depend on it. The question is, how? We’ve spent decades and billions of dollars and salmon runs are still facing extinction. Removing the four dams on the lower Snake River is critical to salmon recovery efforts — but where would that leave the communities that depend on these dams? Farmers, growers and shippers that rely on the dams for their livelihoods are understandably concerned.

Fishermen are also worried: we’ve felt the financial impact of salmon declines for decades. In 1978, there were more than 3,000 salmon trollers working the coastal waters of Washington State. Salmon trollers are small boats that catch salmon one at a time on hook and line. By 2018 the number of boats participating in the fishery had fallen to just 108. That kind of loss has had a massive ripple effect on jobs, paychecks, livelihoods, families.

This isn’t about whose concerns are more valid, or who feels more pain. We all need more security and prosperity. Farmers and fishers need to unite around solutions that are good for our communities. We need help from our elected leaders to plan for the future, so we aren’t all stuck in a cycle of conflict.

Governor Inslee’s report explores the kinds of investments that would need to be made in the lower Snake dams are removed to restore the river for salmon recovery. How would we replace the dams’ benefits? Who would bear the costs? What would communities need for new irrigation and transportation infrastructure? What would the economic benefits look like? How could everyone step in to be part of a comprehensive solution?

In our region, we’re often divided – politically and philosophically – by which side of the Cascade mountains we live on. But I believe our rural communities have a lot in common. Fishers and farmers are all working to put good food on the region’s tables and I believe we all want the same thing for our families and our future. Governor Inslee’s report has helped start a conversation, but we need our leaders to work with us to develop a plan for the future. It’s critical that the Northwest’s congressional delegation comes together around solutions that move us beyond the status quo that’s simply not working for anyone.

We don’t have to settle for continued conflict around salmon and economic uncertainty in our rural communities. Instead we can commit ourselves in the new year to bringing stakeholders together, east and west, farmer and fisherman, to continue the dialogue about how we can invest in the future that keeps our communities strong.

Joel Kawahara, commercial salmon fishermen based in Quilcene, Washington

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