Tribes Demand Action to Restore Salmon, Troutby Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, January 25, 2000
Leaders may sue if talks with federal officials about Columbia River fish populations fail
Columbia River tribal leaders are expected to tell the Clinton administration today that the federal government could face them in court unless it takes significant action to restore salmon.
A delegation that will include representatives of the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama and Warm Springs tribes is to meet at 10 a.m. with President Clinton's environment adviser and top officials of other federal agencies.
"This is a big meeting," said Justin Hayes, associate director of American Rivers, a Washington, D.C., conservation group. "These are the federal officials who will be deciding what to do about Snake and Columbia River salmon."
Neither tribal nor federal officials would disclose details of today's meeting, calling it a consultation between governments on efforts to restore dwindling salmon and steelhead trout populations in the Columbia River.
But it will be the most important meeting between tribal and federal officials in years, and it comes as the federal government considers whether to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River to aid salmon. The tribes support breaching.
Treaties signed in 1855 guarantee the four tribes salmon fishing rights in the Columbia. Tribal officials said they might raise that issue today.
"There's no room for delay. We need to move," said Chuck Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the four treaty tribes.
"It's no secret the tribes are considering litigation," said John Platt, an aide to Don Sampson, executive director of tribal fish commission. "The tribes will use every means necessary to uphold their treaty rights."
George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, will lead the meeting.
"The tribes clearly are among the key stakeholders in the region on these issues," said Elliot Diringer, a spokesman for Frampton. "We have a special responsibility by virtue of their sovereignty to consult with them."
In less than two weeks, the fisheries service and the corps will begin public meetings throughout the Northwest on proposed federal salmon recovery plans. In response to a lawsuit, the federal government in 1995 pledged to come up with a new salmon recovery plan for the basin.
The tribes say they have been locked out of federal deliberations on whether the dams should be breached.
"The National Marine Fisheries Service is not listening to the states and tribes, and the tribes are clearly not going to take it anymore," said Dan Rohlf, director of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center. "I think the tribes will be carrying that message loud and clear."
The tribes are particularly unhappy that the National Marine Fisheries Service has begun a scientific study to look for ways to restore Snake River salmon runs without breaching the dams, said Jeff Curtis, conservation director of Trout Unlimited.
The fisheries service has largely abandoned an earlier scientific study that concluded breaching would be the surest way to save Snake River salmon and steelhead.
Curtis said the tribes would ask the federal government to correct flaws in its new scientific analysis, called the Cumulative Risk Initiative. Trout Unlimited has analyzed the study for the tribes and found "serious questions on the work CRI is doing," he said.
Other issues expected to be raised today include:
• Recovery goals. The federal Endangered Species Act requires only that extinction be averted. The tribes want the federal government to work to restore salmon and steelhead to abundance in the basin.
• Tribal fishing levels. The fisheries service's newest analysis concluded that Snake River fall chinook probably could be saved either by breaching Snake River salmon or by restricting fishing. The tribes oppose further fishing limits, noting that ending tribal commercial harvest of Snake River spring and summer chinook failed to reverse declines.
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