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Northwest tribes blast Bonneville for fish and wildlife funding cuts

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Northwest tribes are calling for a full audit of the Bonneville Power Administration's fish and wildlife program and demanding the federal energy marketer honor its financial commitments to salmon recovery efforts.

In a strongly worded resolution unanimously approved Feb. 13 at its winter conference in Portland, the 54-member Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) condemned the agency's proposal to cap its annual fish and wildlife expenditures at $139 million, nearly half of what it committed to, its disregard for the National Marine Fisheries Service's Biological Opinion and its defiance of treaties and tribal trust responsibilities.

The tribes, and federal and state fish and wildlife agencies, along with an independent science panel established by the Northwest Power Planning Council, identified $242 million in annual expenditures for high-priority projects in the Columbia Basin.

Justin Gould, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), which includes the Warm Springs, Urnatilla, Nez Perce and Yakarna tribes, called the resolution "a shot across Bonneville's bow."

"This resolution demonstrates that as Indian people, we've had it with the Bonneville Power Administration," he said. "Last fall, Bonneville officials crowed about large salmon returns, suggesting that fish and wildlife programs they funded deserved their due. Ironically, the only successful programs within this agency are the ones taking the biggest hits."

The resolution points out countless cases in which Bonneville ignored fish and wildlife recovery recommendations from not only Columbia Basin tribes, but also the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Northwest Power Planning Council. It also notes several instances in which Bonneville breached memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and practiced outright deceit.

In addition, according to the motion, BPA has required culture, fish and wildlife managers to drastically reduce their budgets while increasing its own, paying for "non-essential personnel, property and services," which is contrary to objectives stated in the 1976 MOU that include minimizing BPA staff and deferring decision making to the tribes.

And "BPA has failed to reveal a truthful and accurate accounting of its expenditures."

The resolution calls for a complete financial and management audit of BPA's fish and wildlife program "to increase transparency and accountability." It also demands "full implementation and funding" by BPA of NMFS's 2000 Biological Opinion on the Federal Columbia River Power System and the Power Planning Council's Fish and Wildlife Program by triggering Safety Net Cost Recovery Adjustment Clauses "if necessary and appropriate."

A Safety Net Cost Recovery Adjustment Clause allows Bonneville to make the remainder of its payments to the U.S. Department of the Treasury during a rate period. It kicks in when BPA forecasts a 50 percent probability that it will miss a payment to the Treasury or other creditor, or when it actually misses a payment.

The resolution points out the complexity and subjectiveness of Bonneville's contracting process for fish and wildlife recovery projects. ATNI calls for BPA to use its capital budget for land and water acquisitions and remove its "self-imposed prohibition" on carrying over funds to future years.

Samuel Penney, Nez Perce Tribe Executive Committee chairman, said the resolution shows "there's regional support for the fisheries issue, and that we all have a stake in what's happening here. If the fishery resource is depleted all along the (Columbia River) system, everyone is going to be affected."

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"We're not going to sit back and let these stocks go extinct," he added.

Jay Minthorn, an Umatilla Fish & Wildlife Committee member, said Bonneville's proposed cuts will send the region back to the 1930s, when dams were being built and the federal government was regularly making promises it couldn't keep.

"They told the people, 'Don't worry, Indian people. We'll double the runs for you," Minthorn said. "Well, where are we today? We're back to the '30s. They put the almighty dollar before our resources."

Warren Seyler, chairman of the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), which includes the Coeur d'Alene, Colville, Kalispel, Kootenai and Spokane tribes, said Bonneville has never treated the entire Columbia Basin equitably, and UCUT's up-river tribes have suffered.

"They need to look at it as a system. They need to do it in an equitable fashion and recognize that this is a regionwide issue," he said. "The water that flows from upriver, without that there is no salmon recovery. The tribes refuse to be drawn into a BPA-induced squabble. It's more than a tribal issue, it's a BPA issue. We're trying to benefit the region, not just tribal members."

Mathew Tomaskin, ATNI's second vice president and a Yakama tribal council member, said that if Bonneville's fish and wildlife cuts go through, it could result in significant layoffs of tribal staff members.

"These projects are ongoing and very vital," he said. "We'd have to suddenly decide which costs to cover."

Bonneville's cuts would have a "rippling effect" on other businesses that rely heavily on the patronage of natural resource agencies and their workers, not to mention fishers who benefit from recovery efforts, Tomaskin believes. "They would lose out."

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, natural resource-related recreation, including wildlife watching, fishing and hunting, is big business to sporting goods stores, bait shops and boat ramps in that state. It also makes a substantial contribution to motels, campgrounds, convenience stores, restaurants, gas stations and other small businesses across the state, especially in rural communities.

Fishers, hunters and wildlife viewers spent a combined total of more than $2.18 billion in Washington in 2001. The state ranks first in the Northwest, and eighth in the nation, in spending by sport fishers, which totaled nearly $854 million that same year.

Tornaskin added that BPA never consulted with the tribes before proposing the cuts. In fact, he didn't know about the proposed cuts until he read about them in the newspaper.

"This was just thrown at us," he said. "When was the consultation prior to this? They have an obligation to the tribes and to natural resources and they need to uphold that obligation to the utmost of their ability and include the tribes in every bit of negotiation."