Northwest tribes react to salmon plan

PORTLAND, Ore. - The December release of the much-touted Federal Caucus Biological Opinion and All H papers outlining policies regarding salmon restoration and mitigation in the Columbia River basin has been met with deep disappointment by Columbia basin tribes.

Both the BiOp and the All H paper, which outlines "recovery strategy" for salmon habitat and harvest levels as well as hydro power recommendations for the next 10 years, fall far short of tribal expectations. In fact, recommendations fall so short, they do not even meet tribal treaty obligations for salmon harvests by the Umatilla, Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes.

In a last-minute push to show some sort of unity before Bush administration personnel take up the reins of power, a Memorandum of Understanding was circulated through the agencies involved in policy development. Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bonneville Power Administration, Northwest Power Council, the BIA, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers were all asked to sign the memorandum as an agreement to implement the policies of the Biological Opinion and the All H paper.

So far BIA representatives have refused to sign the memorandum.

"We were reluctant to do so, particularly when we felt very uncomfortable with the fact that they used some language in there that certainly would have placed the bureau in a position of not upholding the trust responsibility and the treaty rights of the tribes," says Stan Speaks, regional director of the BIA in Portland.

Speaks says an analysis of the memorandum expressing concerns about the policy potentially abrogating tribal treaty rights was sent to Sharon Blackwell, deputy commissioner of Indian Affairs. Washington BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling said the deliberations on the MOU to implement the salmon plan are "still ongoing" with no end in sight.

A letter protesting the memorandum was sent to former BIA Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover by Donald Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

Not only does the Recovery Strategy recommended in both papers call for an indefinite harvest "cap" at Indian fisheries, representatives of the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission say the Recovery Strategy will not lead to restoration of salmon.

Chuck Hudson, CRITFC public information manager, says "preventing severe decline" is the real objective of the strategy.

"There really was no change from the draft to the final," says Hudson. "There was very, very little change from the 1995 Biological Opinion to the 2000 Biological Opinion. They are both very much preserve status quo products."

For tribes, the most frustrating fact is that dozens of meetings between tribal representatives and fisheries personnel, CRITFC members and government Federal Caucus representatives, plus three meetings with George Frampton, the White House chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality, apparently were meaningless.

Hudson said a solid year's worth of meetings, conference calls, memorandums, technical information sharing, travel time and tribal resources resulted in little, if any, changes in the drafts of the Biological Opinion and All H paper which were released for public review by the National Marine Fisheries Service in January 2000.

Tribal recommendations, drawn from years of salmon restoration studies, included reductions, reforms and improvements in all areas of habitat, hydropower and harvest.

But, while the Federal Caucus agencies were happy to tout their government-to-government relations with tribes during the year-long review process, tribal input was ignored.

"If they suggest that tribal input is reflected in these plans, we haven't seen it," says Randy Settler, Yakama Nation fish and wildlife committee chairman and member of the government-to-government consultation effort.

Contrary to tribal recommendation, the Biological Opinion and All H papers recommend hydropower agencies continue to pay for off-site mitigation rather than taking definite measures to reduce salmon mortality at the dams. Consideration for breaching the Snake River dams is deferred another 10 years. Artificial propagation measures recommended by the tribes are not included in the Recovery Strategy. Instead, policies by the National Marine Fisheries Service such as the ESU (Evolutionary Significant Unit policy) that result in the annual mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of returning "surplus" hatchery salmon, remain in effect.

The Federal Caucus failure to incorporate tribal recommendations into the BiOp and All H paper is in stark contrast to recent agreements and alignment of goals and objectives set by Northwest states and tribes. For example, the Northwest Power Planning Council and tribes set mutual rebuilding goals of 5 million fish in 25 years through a blend of innovative state and tribal projects - some of which are opposed by NMFS.

"The federal government is taking a regulate-for-scarcity approach just as we're breaking through on a collaboration-for-abundance plan with the states," says Olney Patt, Jr., CRITFC chairman and chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. "The federal agencies can help this effort through less interference and foot-dragging."

Even if the Biological Opinion and All H papers are eventually implemented, budget considerations remain an enormous obstacle.

Not only is the Bush administration environmentally antagonistic, the current energy crisis in California may offset Bonneville Power Administration's ability to come up with its $350 million share of funding for the Recovery Strategy. And, since former Sen. Slade Gorton's defeat, the remaining $150-to $200 million in appropriations required for implementation may not be so easy to come up with either.

"Our feeling is, even if fully funded without any further hitches, at best this thing keeps fish at their current levels," Hudson says.

CRITFC members are contemplating possible reactions and measures that can be taken against the recommendations of the Biological Opinion and All H paper Recovery Strategies.