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Tribes make a controversial deal on salmon


After three Columbia River tribes decided to stop pushing for the breaching of four federal dams on the Snake River, many critics spoke the ugly word “sellout.” The tribes will receive $900 million in new salmon projects in exchange for halting their court battle for the next decade.

However, the Warm Springs, Yakama and Umatilla tribes – joined later in the day on April 7 by the Colville tribe -- are following in the footsteps of the region’s leaders, even though many scientists say that the dam breaching is necessary to save 13 stocks of endangered salmon. The tribes gave up their fight to breach the dams because they read the current political tea leaves: Not one political leader in the Pacific Northwest in either party supports breaching dams.

Both of Washington’s Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, campaigned to keep the four dams, and not one of the three presidential candidates is in favor of breaching dams. There is no surprise in any of this.

And the deal the tribes negotiated with federal dam regulators is better than their critics charge. They got federal dam managers to agree not to challenge a tribal agreement with Oregon and Washington that will let the tribes catch more salmon in years when hatchery fish are more abundant. For the Columbia River tribes, protecting treaty rights is a top priority. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the tribes won battles in Washington and Oregon that recognize their right to half of the fish harvested in the Columbia and its tributaries. Ever since then, they have resolutely defended those rights.

Meanwhile, those still in favor of restoring salmon runs through dam-breaching -- including the Nez Perce Tribe, which shares its treaty rights with the other tribes -- continue to fight. The dam-breaching strategy is to convince U.S. District Judge James Redden that the Bush administration’s current salmon and dam plan remains inadequate both scientifically and legally. If Redden is so convinced, he has promised to consider ordering harsh and costly measures, such as spilling more water around hydroelectric turbines, drawing down reservoirs behind dams, or requiring the draining of upstream reservoirs for water to help salmon migration.

Many advocates believe these measures would prove even more costly than breaching the four dams. This will force the region’s political leaders -- and the next president -- to take the painful steps necessary to resolve the issue. The tribe’s recent deal could sidestep this outcome only if Judge Redden is convinced that the promised 200 hatchery and habitat projects to the tribes, along with projects offered in a separate $65 million deal with Idaho, help the Bush administration’s plan meet the law and enable salmon to survive.

The Bush plan might have a chance before Redden if the Bonneville Power Administration, the agency that markets hydroelectricity from the dams, can get Oregon on board with a separate deal. But Oregon is currently aligned with environmentalists, fishermen and sporting businesses in challenging the Bush administration plan. Oregon has made it clear that it wants a truly aggressive non-breach option on the table.

The 200 hatchery and harvest restoration projects are mostly to help fish in the Columbia River and not in the Snake River. With the Nez Perce tribe unwilling to back off from breaching, the projects in Idaho that BPA offered the tribe weren’t a part of the deal. Instead, the Bonneville Power Administration went to the state of Idaho offering $65 million for similar projects. Like Oregon, the Nez Perce could still make a deal that would help dam managers convince Redden they have done enough for now.

So unless the things change dramatically in the next two years, dam breaching isn’t going to Congress for approval anytime soon. Under this new deal, the tribes will get some money, get even tougher measures through further negotiations, and still have another shot at the dams in 10 years.

That’s assuming, of course, that there’s still time to save the salmon.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America, and environmental writer for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].