To Save Salmon, We Have to Slow Climate Change

by Ed Johnstone

Ed Johnstone

No one in the Pacific Northwest is exempt from the impacts of climate change.

Rising global temperatures are intensifying floods, droughts and warming waters. Last summer’s heat dome led to temperatures in western Washington as high as 110 degrees. We didn’t just break records — we obliterated all-time records over an incredibly hot four-day period. The ocean, the rivers and the streams ran hotter than ever. Thousands of salmon died, and the people and animals that depend on them suffered.

As salmon disappear, so do dozens of other species dependent on the nutrition they provide. It is as my mentor Billy Frank Jr. once said, “As the salmon disappear, so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads, and we are running out of time.”

The tribes have been leading the way in adapting to and mitigating climate impacts. We are determined to make a difference. Tribes have bought land to protect and restore. We are installing carefully planned logjams in rivers to form salmon-friendly pools, planting thousands of trees and native vegetation along rivers and streams to replace riparian habitat and taking a lead role in opposing the causes of human-caused climate change.

But the sad truth is our efforts are nowhere near enough to keep up with the damage caused by seemingly endless development and the ongoing onslaught to the environment.

It can be frustrating, but frustration is an excuse for the defeated, and we’re not about to throw in the towel. Dealing with climate change has to be our collective priority. Mere talk will not solve the problem.

Tribes have been calling for action in the fight against climate change for decades, and we have done what we could to deter its impacts. We need to be involved at all levels of climate policy. More than 10 years ago, western Washington treaty tribes sponsored a symposium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., to showcase our concerns and gather our collective strength to meet the climate change challenge. 

But the Fight Has Just Begun.
Governments worldwide have not done enough to stabilize rising global temperatures. A recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is “a litany of broken promises,” according to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

“We are on a fast track to climate disaster,” he said. “Major cities under water, unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.”

The U.N. report also recognized the often-overlooked value of the traditional ecological knowledge held by native people. It’s altogether appropriate to finally listen to the Indigenous peoples’ pleas to respect and care for the environment, it said. 

Funding to help fight and adapt to climate change is forthcoming. The state’s new Climate Commitment Act, a cap-and-invest program for carbon polluters is projected to raise $8.4 billion by the end of state fiscal year 2040, with at least 10 percent of that going to climate investments supported by tribes. In addition, the state intends to spend at least $50 million per biennium to help mitigate climate impacts on tribes. The state operating budget includes more than $3 million to develop new guidance and model planning elements under the Growth Management Act to help local governments address climate change. The feds are kicking in, too, with billions of dollars intended to turn the tide.

All this will be money well spent, I’m sure. But throwing money at the problem is only part of the solution. Real progress will require strong will, follow-through and lifestyle change. People everywhere have got to take a good, hard look at the way they do things. They have to learn to respect the land and truly care about the world they are leaving for their children.

Everyone needs to understand why it’s so important to restore salmon in our rivers, and why they should conserve gas and turn to clean energy, use water sparingly and reduce plastic use. They need to support the efforts to fight climate change, and, yes, learn from the traditional knowledge of the tribes.

We all have to work together to truly make a difference.


Ed Johnstone is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission ( This column represents the natural resources management interests and concerns of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington.

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