ORLEANS, Calif. - What is being called the biggest dam removal in U.S. history could take place on the Klamath River if a pending agreement is adopted between tribal and other stakeholders and PacifiCorp, a utility owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffet;s Berkshire Hathaway company.
''We may know on Sept. 30 what the exact agreement is,'' said Georgiana Myers, Yurok, outreach coordinator for the Klamath Riverkeeper.
The Klamath Justice Coalition, a group of community activists working to restore the river through removal of four dams that provide electricity to PacifiCorp, has turned to the Indigenous Peoples' Power Project, known as ''IP3,'' of the Ruckus Society, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization, for assistance in achieving an agreement to save the salmon whose existence is jeopardized by the dams.
Advance details of an agreement could turn a planned ''PacifiCorp Day of Action'' at the utility's headquarters in Portland, Ore., Sept. 18 into a day of celebration if the terms benefit Klamath River restoration, she said; but if not, a full-fledged protest is likely.
''If we love our culture, we better be ready to defend it. It is this understanding that calls us to act. As Native people that live with respect to the relationship of the Earth and our people, it is clear that we are going to have to defend our land and way of life,'' said IP3 Director Marty Aranaydo, Muskogee, who described his organization as a Native network of direct action trainers.
''Like most Native peoples, the Klamath River nations have a strong tradition of protecting their lands,'' said Robert Chanate, Kiowa, IP3 board member and trainer.
''They invited us to hold our trainings and camps for the people in their communities as a way of introducing more direct action tactics. In turn, these tactics can be used to strategically escalate the pressure on PacifiCorp to stop the damage being done by their dams.
''Many times, our people do not think of learning about nonviolent direct action until they find themselves trying to protect their homelands or way of life from an immediate threat. Unfortunately, by that point it may be too late to stop whatever the threat is. If they had taken a little time beforehand to familiarize themselves with this option, they might have been able to respond to the threat more effectively.''
After years of conflict over competing uses of the river's water for irrigation, fishery preservation flows and other purposes, the coalition members feel the key to an agreement is ''what is the timeline?'' Myers said. ''We don't have 25 years: we had a juvenile [Chinook salmon] die-off this year.''
In the past, negotiators' suggested deadlines for dam removal have been 2012 for the first dam, 2020 for the second and so on, she said, noting that if the tribes were to be taxed for removal, costs ''that would also be an issue.''
Financial interests may be driving a settlement this time, according to Craig Tucker, Klamath River campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe. The Karuk and Yurok tribes and Hoopa Valley Indian Tribe have members in the coalition.
Tucker said he is ''guardedly optimistic'' that a settlement is near, because a fish preservation dam feature that would be required for PacifiCorp's pending license renewal would cost the utility $200 million, while dam removal would cost about half that amount.
In addition, because less water would be diverted through the turbines, less energy could be generated and the dams' operation ''wouldn't make money, so we think we're close to a deal,'' he said.
In January, some of the area tribal nations, Upper Klamath River Basin farmers and environmental groups came together to present a united front and they forged a tentative agreement - to date not ratified by PacifiCorp, Tucker said.
Competing uses of the Klamath River came to a head in 2001, a dry year when maintaining fishery flows required under the Endangered Species Act left farmers water-short. Although the federal government restored the flows in 2002, massive salmon die-offs occurred, creating further dissent.
''Several species on the Klamath have disappeared from this area, such as the wolf, grizzly and candlefish,'' said Chook-Chook Hillman, Karuk, who has been a direct action leader for the coalition.
''Salmon will not join that list. With tribal solidarity and community-based actions, we can ensure PacifiCorp will be held accountable.''
Hillman was a leader of a coalition confrontation in May at the Berkshire Hathaway general shareholders meeting in Omaha, Neb., where he challenged Buffet to sign the tentative agreement. (He refused.)
The Day of Action would mark the three-year anniversary of a fish kill memorial.
''We had a die-off of 68,000 Chinook in 2002, and every year 80 percent of juvenile Chinook die,'' Hillman said.
Removing the dams may restore Chinook, Coho and steelhead salmon by eliminating the barriers to their spawning grounds in the 263-mile river. Much of the river flows through the territories of the Klamath River nations, for which it is a source of food and a cultural and spiritual resource.