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Save Our Wild Salmon

Biden administration also created the Columbia River Task Force to implement efforts to restore fish population

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By Eric Barker
Jun 19, 2024

The Biden Administration took multiple steps Tuesday to make good on its commitment to honor tribal treaty rights and restore Snake and Columbia river salmon runs.

It released a report acknowledging dams have gravely harmed salmon runs and Columbia Basin tribes like the Nez Perce that depend on them. It also created the Columbia River Task Force and charged it with implementing the administration’s efforts to restore the iconic fish.

The Tribal Perspectives Report is an acknowledgement that construction of hydroelectric and other dams benefited the region at the expense of tribes, fish and the environment. Starting in about 1900 and lasting seven decades, the federal government and partners began building dams that transformed much of Columbia and Snake rivers from free-flowing streams into a series of slackwater pools.

They spurred development of the region by producing cheap and reliable hydroelectricity, controlling floods and creating a waterborne transportation system. But the dams changed the nature of the rivers. Salmon, steelhead and other species that were already depressed from overfishing and destruction of habitat suffered even more. The dams also displaced tribal villages, destroyed important fishing and gathering spots like Celilo Falls and Kettle Falls, and swallowed important cultural sites including burial grounds.

During their construction, the government took few if any steps to ensure the tribal fishing rights enumerated in treaties were protected. Subsequent efforts to mitigate the harm have failed.

“While the transformation of the Columbia and Snake rivers brought economic gains to the region, the Tribes have not shared equitably in those benefits,” reads the report. “Instead, by providing affordable electricity, irrigation water, barging routes, and other benefits to regional industries while simultaneously contributing to the decline in salmon populations and degradation of natural resources, the dams transferred wealth away from the Tribes to other communities.”

Shannon Wheeler, chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe, was in Washington D.C. for a meeting with Biden administration officials Tuesday and said the report is a more honest assessment of the impacts the dams have had on his and 10 other Columbia Basin tribes than previous attempts.

“We are thankful the administration understands the true impacts the tribal nations and the Nez Perce have felt over the course of time and more importantly we have been able to express the suffering the salmon have had to endure, and other species associated with the salmon like the orca and the starvation they face because of loss of salmon.”

He said the report also recognizes the 1855 treaties the federal government signed with the Nez Perce, Yakima, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes — that among other things reserve their right to fish in usual and accustomed places — are recognized by the U.S. Constitution as the “supreme law of the land.”

The report details ways the harm may be mitigated moving forward, including a call that upholding tribal treaty rights be an integral part of National Environmental Policy Act processes. Every time the federal government endeavors to implement actions that may disturb the environment, the act requires potential harms be spelled out and alternatives proposed.

Last year, the federal government signed two agreements with Columbia Basin Tribes that led to a decades-long lawsuit being put on hold for as many as 10 years. One promised to reintroduce salmon to the upper Columbia River. The construction of Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams extirpated the fish from that section of the Columbia.

The second agreement committed the federal government to the Columbia River Restoration Initiative. It aims to help the Nez Perce and other Columbia River treaty tribes develop alternative energy projects that can be counted as replacement power if the lower Snake River dams are breached in the future. The initiative also calls for studies that look for the best ways to replace the transportation and irrigation services now provided by the Snake River dams.

Executive director selected for Columbia River Task Force

On Tuesday, the government announced the creation of the Columbia River Task Force to oversee implementation of the initiative and appointed Nik Blosser, of Portland, to serve as its executive director. Blosser served as chief of staff for former Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, was a vice president at Portland General Electric, served on the Biden administration’s transition team in 2020 and worked in the Office of Cabinet Affairs for Biden.

“The Columbia River Task Force will implement President Biden’s vision to develop affordable, clean, and reliable energy options for the region while working to restore wild fish populations and address the grave harms the federal dams have inflicted on Tribal communities,” said Brenda Mallory, chairperson of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “President Biden recognizes that to confront injustice, we must be honest about history — even when doing so is difficult. The report released today is an important step to recognize and overcome the past together.”

The Lewiston Tribune: Report: 'Dams hurt salmon and tribes' article link

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