4 Tribes Agree to Settlement
by Hal Bernton
A $900 million settlement announced Monday between federal agencies and four Washington and Oregon tribes has redrawn the battle lines in the marathon fight over how to attempt the restoration of Columbia River Basin salmon runs.
For years, these tribes have been fierce critics of federal policies to restore salmon, and they joined with environmentalists in a lawsuit that sought major changes in management of the Columbia River hydroelectric systems, including the possible breaching of four dams on the Lower Snake River.
But under the settlement, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation and two Washington tribes -- the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation -- agreed to drop lawsuits against the federal government. The settlement is contained in two separate agreements, and the tribes pledge to refrain from filing any additional lawsuits for the 10-year term of the agreement.
"We came to the table with the federal agencies as courtroom adversaries," said Ron Suppah, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, in Oregon. "We leave the table now as partners. We have built an aggressive plan that fixes problems where the fish encounter them."
The agreements -- if finalized after public hearings -- would largely use hydroelectric revenues to bankroll habitat restoration, hatcheries and other specific programs sought by tribal scientists to try to rebuild salmon runs. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) already is funding such projects, and it is unclear how much more the agency would need to spend.
It's also not known how the agreement would affect the cost of wholesale power that the BPA sells to Seattle City Light, Snohomish County Public Utility District and other Northwest utilities.
"It's a tricky question. ... Our cost structure will be higher than if we didn't have this agreement," said Steve Wright, BPA administrator.
The Columbia River Basin historically was one of North America's great producers of wild salmon, but those runs have dwindled over the past century under pressures that now include a network of dams -- and slack-water pools -- that young fish must navigate as they migrate to sea and when they return to spawn. About a dozen wild salmon and steelhead runs that spawn in the Columbia and Snake River basins are listed as threatened or endangered.
As recently as January, tribal representatives outlined serious concerns about federal efforts to restore these fish runs.
The agreements drew mixed reactions on Monday from the governors of Washington and Oregon.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire called the proposal a "positive development."
"We can best protect and enhance our salmon by working together collaboratively throughout the region focusing on real, on-the-ground solutions that make a difference," she said.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski called the agreement premature and said tribes were taking a short-term view. "It's a sad day for me," Kulongoski said.
The settlement also faces opposition from environmental and sport-fishing groups, who said the agreement falls short of ensuring the survival of threatened and endangered runs of salmon. They want U.S. District Judge James Redden to order federal agencies to increase the amount of water spilled over the dams and increase river flows in the slack-water areas where salmon have a difficult time traversing. And they propose breaching the four Lower Snake River dams.
"The opportunity to restore these fish is rapidly slipping away," said Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice, which has represented several environmental groups in the lawsuit against the federal agencies. "BPA and other federal agencies have consistently been more interested in protecting the status quo rather than in restoring wild salmon."
The Idaho-based Nez Perce Tribe, also has balked at signing the agreement. The tribe said in a statement that it still wants the four lower Snake River dams removed.
Redden has set a May 5 deadline for the government's latest scientific plan for balancing operations of Columbia Basin dams with threatened or endangered fish runs. Redden has rejected two previous plans and has threatened unspecified consequences if he rejects the latest effort.
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