Native Currents

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Culvert ruling benefits salmon, everyone

Salmon and everyone who lives in the state of Washington are the biggest beneficiaries of the recent federal court ruling requiring the state of Washington to fix fish-blocking culverts under its highways. Judge Ricardo Martinez' summary judgment in the culvert case was clear. The tribes' treaty-reserved right to harvest salmon also includes the right to have those salmon protected so that they are available for harvest, not only by the tribes, but all citizens.

We are pleased that the state of Washington has returned to the negotiating table to work out an effective remedy to fix the culverts that can be put into action quickly. More than 1,000 state-owned culverts under highways are blocking more than 2,300 miles of good in-stream salmon habitat, according to the state's estimates.

When we fix those culverts, we can expect to see more than 200,000 additional adult salmon returning to western Washington. Those fish will be harvested by everyone, both Indian and non-Indian.

The tribes did not want to file the suit. We were forced by the state's refusal to follow and enforce its own laws aimed at protecting salmon habitat.

We've seen salmon runs plummet over the past 30 years, despite the best intentions of the state to protect habitat. Every year, more culverts will fail, and if we don't fix them at a faster rate than they fail, the problem will only get worse. We simply could not wait the 100 years that the state estimated it would take to fix the culverts. That would have spelled the end of the salmon.

In the past two decades, we've ratcheted down harvest to the point that we can no longer make up for lost natural salmon production by further reducing catches. We've also reformed hatchery practices so that these programs are now effectively contributing to the recovery of wild salmon.

What we haven't done over the past 20 years is tackle the biggest reason for declining wild salmon runs: lost and degraded habitat. This case puts the spotlight on salmon habitat, right where it belongs. Without good habitat, and access to that habitat, there will be no salmon recovery.

While there is a financial cost to fix the culverts, there is a much higher cost to be paid by future generations if repairs are delayed.

I hope this legal victory for the treaty tribes will continue to help build the political will we need to bring back the salmon and make sure they have a home when they get here. I know that fixing the culverts will only add to the success of ongoing salmon recovery efforts.

Cooperation has long been the key to natural resource management in Washington. We look forward to sitting down together with the state to develop a comprehensive plan for fixing the culverts that can be put into action quickly. The salmon can't wait much longer.

Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.