Fishing clashes with windsurfing

 

A basalt outcrop on Washington's Columbia River has become the focus of an intense land-rights battle between a developer and a group of Native Americans.

The outcrop, called Lyle Point, sits at the upper end of the Columbia River Gorge, which has become a magnet for windsurfers. When developer Henry Spencer came to the gorge in 1990, he planned to build a subdivision aimed at windsurfers seeking easy access to the river.

Extending out into the choppy waters of the Columbia, Lyle Point seemed the perfect place. But as opponents to Spencer's "Klickitat Landing" development point out, that access is also why members of the Yakima Nation's Klickitat Tribe have fished for salmon off the point for some 10,000 years.

But Spencer went ahead, clearing homesites, bulldozing roads and installing some services for his 32-home subdivision. In the meantime, members of the Klickitat and their supporters have maintained a tepee encampment on Lyle Point since last September, after vandals destroyed a salmon-fishing platform. Some protesters even implicate Spencer in the midnight destruction of the scaffold.

Spencer denies any involvement in the vandalism. He says that his $1.2 million purchase of 46 acres of land, and the subsequent Klickitat County Commission approval of his development last October, grant him the right to proceed with construction. He says he has assured the Klickitat that they will have continued access to their fishing sites in keeping with an 1855 treaty that guarantees native rights to "usual and accustomed" fishing sites.

Spencer also says he has an agreement with the Yakima Nation, though that claim is denied by Harry Smiskin, vice-chairman of the Yakima Tribal Council. Many of the protesters believe Spencer's promise of access will mean little once homes are built on the $80,000-$215,000 lots. The homes are advertised for sale in windsurfing magazines and The Wall Street Journal.

"I call it intimidation when I have to walk through the homes of 32 millionaires to gather the fish," said Margaret Palmer in a Seattle Times interview. Protesters have united around Palmer, a soft-spoken woman who supplies much of the salmon used in local ceremonies. Lyle Point is one of the last remaining native fishing sites along the Columbia, a river dammed since the 1950s, and Palmer says she supports the encampment as a matter of cultural survival.

"I'm just a fish-cutter," she says, "but this is my way of life."

Spencer calls the protest "strictly political," and says he has obtained all requisite permits to proceed with his development. Some residents of rural Lyle, Wash., a town taken by surprise by the windsurfing boom, resent the tepee encampment. One night someone fired shots into a bluff above the tepees, and later another fishing scaffold was knocked down.

There has also been a recent rash of letters to a local paper denouncing native claims to the land. One letter accuses the United States of being "the only country in the world that ever gave superior rights to people conquered." Another favors Spencer's development as a "nice boost" over the sight of "junkyards on both ends of town."

Jay Letto, president of the local Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, is alarmed by what he calls "false and racist propaganda." His group joined the Klickitat in opposing the subdivision last fall, in a battle that is not "divided by red and white but rather what is right and wrong," says Letto. "The Native Americans see a unique and important habitat for bald eagles, salmon and other wildlife that must be protected."

The Klickitat River drains into the Columbia at Lyle Point and is home to a regular winter population of bald eagles. The Washington State Department of Wildlife has documented the river's mouth at the Klickitat Bar as a vital breeding area for the protected birds. But, as staff biologist David Anderson describes it, there was an "unfortunate occurrence" involving the agency's report to Klickitat County during final determination of the development's potential impact on the environment.

"There was a breakdown in communication," Anderson admits. "Our habitat biologist provided them with a computer printout and somehow the bald eagle didn't show up."

Meanwhile, in a March hearing at the Yakima Federal Courthouse, Yakima attorney Tim Weaver argued that Klickitat County's decision to close public roads leading to the point violated the tribe's right to continued access. The case was dismissed, sending it back down to the state court level.

No new construction on Klickitat Landing has occurred at Lyle since the encampment began, except for a longhouse protesters erected among the tepees. Henry Spencer remains undaunted, though not developing may prove to be a lucrative option. The San Francisco-based Trust for Public Lands hopes to interest Spencer in a buy-out, so that the contested land can be transferred to the Washington state parks system. The only problem is Spencer's current asking price of $4 million.

Bowen Blair, the trust's Portland, Ore., director, says he hasn't talked with Spencer in months, but he is still hopeful that a deal can eventually be put together.

Scott Greacen contributed to this report. Zaz Hollander reports for The Daily Astorian.

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