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Klamath protesters return to Omaha

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OMAHA, Neb. – Dams and Indians have bad history in the United States. But for the tribes along the Klamath River – and the salmon they champion – there is good news upstream.

Four dams on the Klamath will be slated for removal – as soon as PacifiCorp passes ownership onto the fed. … as soon as the paperwork is finalized. … as soon as state and federal governments have reached consensus with all interested parties. … as soon as 2012, when further scientific and economic studies are completed.

Last November, PacifiCorp signed a non-binding agreement that outlined 2020 as the earliest date for removal.

The removal, however, is no small undertaking. It represents one of the largest ecological restoration projects in human history. The dam removal would dismantle many thousand tons of cement and steel, and empty 60,744 acre-feet of reservoir waters from Oregon’s Cascade Mountains down 263 miles through northern California to the Pacific Ocean. A dam removal of such magnitude has never before been attempted in North America or elsewhere.

To encourage the positive progress, the Hoopa, Yurok, Karuk and Klamath tribes returned to Omaha in May for a shareholder meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, the company owned by Warren Buffet – the second richest man in the world.

Along with a slew of products, from Coca-Cola to Fruit of the Loom, Berkshire Hathaway owns MidAmerican Energy, which had acquired PacifiCorp four years ago from a Scottish corporation. Along with PacifiCorp’s energy utilities (including the Klamath dams), shareholders acquired tribal protesters.

The tribes hope dam removal will restore the river’s dwindling salmon runs.

For the third year, the tribes sent representatives to Omaha. Last year, the tribes aimed at disrupting the meeting. They clogged question-and-answer lines for the “Oracle of Omaha.” They dropped banners in the massive auditorium. And the convention center’s security ejected more than half of the 24 representatives.

This year, the tribes came with a different message: “The salmon isn’t in the smokehouse, yet.”

Roughly a dozen tribal representatives distributed faux-newspapers that explained their cause. The “Klamath World-Herald” masthead mimicked the local daily – The Omaha World Herald.

“I’m here to thank PacifiCorp for cooperating and working with our people to move forward with the dam issue,” said Archie Super, chairman of the Karuk Tribe.

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The tribes’ presence felt milder in 2009, but their position remained serious.

“We want to let the company know that the dams are destroying our culture, they are destroying our people, destroying our watershed,” said Georgiana Myers, with the Klamath Riverkeeper organization.

The past 12 months included numerous progressions in the dam removal issue. The Klamath Tribes of Oregon are nearing adjudication on a senior water rights claim; various state and federal legislations are pending; EPA regulations are making it more difficult for PacifiCorp, and local farmers, to do business along the river.

“We do have some stewardships and principles around doing what’s right and protecting the environment,” said PacifiCorp spokesman Art Sasse. “So it would be an overstatement to say it’s simply a matter of dollars and cents. But, we are regulated by the government and we have to bring energy to our customers at the lowest possible cost.”

To keep the dams, PacifiCorp must build $350 million worth of fish ladders, which makes re-licensing cost-ineffective.

The dams, constructed between 1908 and 1962, require federal licensing every 50 years. The tribes’ concerted protest efforts began the year before re-licensing could begin. In 2004 and 2005, the tribes sent delegations to Scotland to speak with ScottishPower.

Craig Tucker, a Karuk spokesman, said they found welcome audience with the Scots. “The city coat of arms in Glasgow has salmon on it, so they could identify with salmon-people. And the shareholders were really outraged. So we thought we were going to be able to use a shareholder resolution in Scotland to force the dam down.”

Then ScottishPower sold PacifiCorp, and the landscape changed. The tribes came to the annual Berkshire Hathaway meeting in 2007 seeking a collaborative approach. They left Omaha disappointed and returned with last year’s confrontational approach.

Corporate/investor opinion isn’t the only obstacle to the tribe’s goal. PacifiCorp is currently negotiating with 26 stakeholders to reach an agreement – farmers need irrigation, commercial fishermen need rejuvenated salmon spawns; environmentalists need endangered species protection. Meanwhile, PacifiCorp’s customers need hydroelectric power.

“Where I think the tribes really started to gain ground was in figuring a way to go to people that had been at war in the past (commercial fishing and agriculture interests) and find a common ground,” Sasse said. “I think the tribes should really get credit for bringing a coalition together that hadn’t existed before.”

The dam decision won’t be resolved by next year. So, tribal activists are planning another visit to Buffet at the next Berkshire Hathaway meeting.