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Tribes Seal $900 Million Deal

by Michael Milstein & Scott Learn
The Oregonian, April 8, 2008

Yakama, Colville, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes agree to back federal dam-operation plans for 10 years

For decades, as Columbia and Snake river dams helped push salmon, sturgeon and lamprey numbers down, Northwest tribes battled the federal government over its treatment of what the tribes see as sacred species.

That dynamic changed Monday, when four tribes and the government announced a history-making deal:

The tribes will agree for 10 years to support the government's controversial plans for operating its dams and bow out of a long-running lawsuit that has faulted dam operations. And they pledge not to advocate breaching dams or listing Pacific lamprey as endangered.

In exchange, the government -- mostly courtesy of the Bonneville Power Administration's electric customers -- will pay $900 million in the next decade for habitat and hatchery improvements spelled out by the tribes.

"We are now putting aside the hostilities and putting trust in one another," said Fidelia Andy of the Yakama Nation, chairwoman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We are eager to leave behind the gridlock."

"It's moving our energy from courtrooms to streambeds," added John Ogan, attorney for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Environmental groups and Oregon officials said the deal fails to help endangered fish past the dams that kill them or address removal of Snake River dams. That risks throwing more dollars at a problem that has swallowed billions without restoring endangered fish, they said.

"I firmly believe this agreement doesn't go far enough and isn't aggressive enough to restore our salmon runs," Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said Monday. Before the deal, the state had been allied with the tribes in demanding more help for fish.

Federal strategy

As recently as January, the tribes had complained that the latest federal strategy for offsetting the damage from dams is "a step backwards" for fish. They criticized that strategy for cutting back water releases to help fish and sending them downriver on barges instead.

"This agreement doesn't change the law, and it doesn't change the science," said Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice who is working for some of the environmental groups suing the government.

U.S. District Court Judge James Redden still has to rule on the federal government's strategy, with the parties due back in his courtroom in early May. Environmental groups and the state of Oregon will continue to argue that the plan, even with the additions negotiated by the tribes, isn't adequate for fish survival.

But Steve Wright, Bonneville Power's administrator, said he thinks Redden will be impressed that the tribes and the government have followed the judge's instructions to collaborate on a plan. The tribal agreements, out for public comment until April 23, better cement funding for fish projects, Wright said, something Redden wanted to see.

The agreement "increases the probability of success," Wright said. "I think it's a rather dramatic turn, actually, to have (the tribes) move over to our table in the courtroom."

The tribal backing also helps give the government moral high ground -- "nobody has more passion for the fish and more at stake than the tribes," Wright emphasized Monday -- and some rhetorical ammunition against salmon advocacy groups.

When told that some were harshly criticizing the deal, Andy, the intertribal commission chairwoman, fired back, noting that tribes had worked on the agreement for two years: "This is a direct insult to us as tribes," she said.

BPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plan to sign one agreement with three of the four lower Columbia River tribes -- the Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes -- and another with the Colville tribe in Washington, nearer the headwaters of the Columbia.

The last member of the intertribal commission -- the Nez Perce of Idaho -- did not join in the deal but will continue discussions with the government. In a statement, the tribe's executive committee noted that its traditional fishing grounds are above the eight dams on the mainstem Columbia and lower Snake River. The dams "have a significant impact on the fish and on the Nez Perce Tribe," said Samuel N. Penney, the tribe's chairman.

Power costs

Wright, the BPA administrator, said he doesn't know yet how the plan will affect the price of power coming from hydroelectric dams. Much of the cost will come on top of $1 billion the government was already planning to spend to help fish get around dams, but the costs will be spread over 10 years or more. In 2006, the BPA's operating expenses totaled $2.6 billion.

Northwest River Partners, an organization of farmers, electric utilities and others, said it worries the plan will "throw more money" at the problem. The group requested that a federal science review panel evaluate the agreements.

Tribal representatives said the deal includes more specific performance measures to make sure the money doesn't go to waste. It gives more weight to the work of tribal scientists and resource specialists. And it includes species important to tribes, such as lamprey and sturgeon, that aren't on the endangered list but still need help.

The agreements "really do restore and rebalance some of the energy and attention that has been drawn away from critical restoration efforts," said Ogan, the Warm Springs attorney.

Federal agencies approached Oregon officials about joining a similar agreement about 18 month ago. But the talks ended when federal officials would not consider higher spills and other changes in dam operations, said Michael Carrier, Kulongoski's natural resources advisor.

Many salmon advocates share that sentiment. The habitat and hatchery improvements in the agreements are laudable, said Bill Shake, a former fisheries biologist and U.S. Fish and Wildlife official now advising the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. But the agreements "keep in place the status quo of federal dam operation," Shake said. "The status quo will simply not get this region to healthy levels of salmon and steelhead."

Charles Hudson, spokesman for the intertribal commission, said tribal leaders worry that court battles are poisoning the atmosphere around salmon recovery in the Northwest. That runs the risk that leaders in the region and the nation will see the issue as hopeless and turn their attention to other things, Hudson said.

There's little doubt scientifically that breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River would benefit fish, he said. But the Bush administration, as well as the three leading candidates to become the next president, have shown no inclination to consider such a drastic move. In the meantime, the agreement provides money for tribal fish and wildlife programs that can make real improvements.

"There is a lot of political pragmatism in this agreement," Hudson said.

Michael Milstein and Scott Learn
Tribes Seal $900 Million Deal
The Oregonian, April 8, 2008

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