United they stand on the Columbia

Author:
Updated:
Original:

PORTLAND, Ore. - "You fish on that side, I'll fish on this side. Nobody
fish in the middle."

That's how the Columbia River tribes understand cooperation. Spelled more
meaningfully, "cooperation" more fully shows itself to contain a clue for
action. It's about different entities sharing a space while operating
within their own boundaries and ideas. Put another way, in the old Iroquois
adage, cooperation means to "think for yourself, but act for the good of
the group."

Perhaps nowhere is this philosophy better illustrated than on the Columbia
River. The idea of cooperation is embodied in the suite of offices the
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) maintains on the third
floor of one of Portland, Ore.'s high rises. There, amid bulging libraries
and business suits, a staff of over 80 serves at the behest of the
Columbia's four treaty tribes: the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes
of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm
Springs Reservation of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the
Yakama Indian Nation.

CRITFC celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2003 and is fast approaching a
solid three decades in operation. It all started after Judge Robert Belloni
decided the U.S. v. Oregon case brought by members of the Yakama Nation in
1969.

The Belloni decision, as it's known, held that the tribes were entitled to
a "fair share" of the fish runs and, even more significantly, limited the
states' powers to regulate the Indian fishery. Five years later on the
Washington side of the Columbia, in U.S. v. Washington, Judge George Boldt
reaffirmed the Belloni decision and quantified "fair share" as 50 percent,
a figure later adopted in Oregon.

The uproar in the Pacific Northwest was immediate and wild - similar to
current outrages from Klamath Basin farmers who have enjoyed the lion's
share of the water for so long that they have come to think of themselves
as an entitled group. The non-Indian fishing community staged
sometimes-violent demonstrations against tribal fishers, both in the Puget
Sound area and on the Columbia River.

Those were the days when the Columbia River tribes had just organized
themselves under CRITFC. They had a single staffer at a desk in Portland
and little in the way of legal, scientific and policy expertise.

Indeed, Kat Brigham, one of CRITFC's founding commissioners, remembers an
early meeting full of angry non-Indians who were not interested in hearing
what the handful of Indians had to say.

Still, in 1977, the year of CRITFC's founding, the federal court reaffirmed
that the Columbia River tribes should have a place at decision-making
tables since they had half the fishery to protect and manage. It's been an
impressive 30 years since that unassuming beginning.

Olny Patt Jr. is in his second year as director of CRITFC. A soft-spoken
man with silvering hair, his dark eyes are firmly on the prize. "CRITFC's
longevity is related to the vision of the ones who signed the treaties back
in 1855. In their wisdom of reserving rights to the fishery, those who came
before looked after us. That's why the fish are still here," he said.
"We've never given up on the idea that the federal government has the trust
responsibility to look after the fish, and we've always held them to that
word. We're not going to give any quarter on the solemn promise we signed
150 years ago."

The Columbia Basin has over 150 hydropower projects. What was once the
lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest has been turned into a series of slack
water pools held in check by the concrete monoliths. A key question
becomes, then, how to manage the dams to ensure the continuation of the
salmon runs.

In his dark jacket and green tie, Charles Hudson, Hidatsa Tribe member and
public information officer for CRITFC, looks as at home in the halls of
Congress as he is in Portland's federal courthouse. "The dams on the river
are physical and biological obstacles, but it's the human operators that
make the decisions," he said. "Decisions are made every day, all around the
clock, based on power marketing, river navigation and irrigation demands.
There are people in offices looking at spreadsheets and graphs trying to
determine where the markets for power are and how to sell energy for the
best prices."

The 40-something Hudson chuckled, but he didn't smile. "As a result, we get
very little sleep here either. When they propose a power decision that's
detrimental to the fisheries, they know that CRITFC is going to be there
and in their face."

CRITFC has also served the river tribes' efforts to modernize hatchery
operations that more fully mimic conditions young fish encounter in the
wild. The inter-tribal cooperation has netted strides in habitat
restoration as well, not to mention fish marketing strategies as the hope
of actually restoring regular tribal commercial fishing seasons has risen
the past several years.

CRITFC has also been instrumental in helping the tribes clarify their
position in the genetics debate over hatchery fish. Naturalized fish, or
those produced in hatcheries and planted in the wild so they can
reestablish a presence given adequate conditions, is what the Columbia
tribes support - not a strictly-wild fish policy. "Our approach has never
changed. We've always wanted to restore the fish, even if we've had to use
artificial production to do it. The hunt for the purest science is not
going to get us there," said Patt.

The current success and open dialogue is a credit to the CRITFC and the
river tribes' willingness to cooperate. "The tribes have always had the
fish at the forefront of their culture and lives," said Patt. "Our function
here at CRITFC is to make sure we keep a shoulder to the wheel and continue
to push the same idea the tribes have always had about the importance of
the fish."