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Yakama tribe tries to gain licenses on two Columbia River dams

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YAKIMA, Wash. -- For years northwestern American Indian tribes have watched helplessly as dams were constructed in their homelands. Now one northwestern tribe wants to take control of a few of those dams.

The Yakama Nation filed an Initial Consultation Document with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stating its intent to purchase licenses to operate two hydroelectric dams, called the Priest River and Wanapum hydroelectric projects, on the Columbia River.

The tribes face staunch opposition from the Grant County Public Utility District, the entity that constructed these projects in the 1950s. The terms under which these dams were built gave groups responsible operating licenses for 50 years to recoup capital investments.

Grant sources say it should have first rights to the dams because it built them and successfully operated and maintained the multi-purpose dams.

Grant also claims the Yakamas are puppets of a foreign-owned power company because the tribes' partner in the deal is PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of ScottishPower. Earlier this year Grant mounted a highly publicized public relations campaign that portrayed the situation as a foreigners versus locals issue.

Yakama said this accusation is not fair and have publicly stated that it will be the majority owner and not PacifiCorp, who will only manage the project. Tribal member and project consultant Ted Strong said PacificCorp was recommended to the tribe in a search for business partners conducted by a Washington, D.C., law firm which specializes in energy projects.

Strong said that most, if not all of the hefty price tag for the dams, some $400 million, would have to be raised by the tribe through the sale of bonds. He said he feels the tribes have a better plan to manage the resources of the dams than Grant County.

The plan calls for providing a cheap source of energy to the Yakama tribes and their businesses and making a deal with the Grant County Public Utilities District to ensure that a certain percentage of the distributed energy would go to it.

On top of that Strong says that the tribe would also implement new fish management strategies and put a new emphasis on protecting the environment. Perhaps most significantly the Yakama plan also calls for protecting American Indian cultural sites.

The Grant County Public Utility District said it made firm commitments and progress in managing the region's resources and has done well in balancing the area's American Indian cultural values, recreation, fish protection and environment.

Christine Stallard, a spokeswoman for the Grant County Public Utility District, said Grant has submitted a plan in which it will export 63 percent of its power and distribute it throughout the Northwest and that Yakama has no such plan. Furthermore she cites Grant's fish hatcheries as a main reason that fish such as chinook salmon have prospered in the region.

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"This challenge (from the Yakamas), if successful, would only serve to loosen the region's grip on its own power future," Grant County Public Utility District President William Judge said.

The Yakamas counter that it is Grant County that has failed in its management of the facilities. The tribes dismiss Grant's claims as exaggerated.

Strong said Grant County Public Utilities has been sued many times in the past few decades and has an especially strong history of litigation with area tribes which have been upset with Grant's handling of salmon issues.

Strong said the tribe has a much better record on environmental issues and would submit a plan that takes these factors into account. Pressed for specifics Strong said many of the points of the plan have not yet been decided and would not be completely detailed until the tribe makes its final submission for the license in October of 2003.

Additionally Strong scoffed at the notion PacifiCorp's foreign ownership would have any adverse effects on the region the dams serve. PacifiCorp already operates 53 dams in the Pacific Northwest and Strong said they have a record of success.

The Yakamas have consulted with many different groups in several fields of expertise, she said. The Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission has been advising Yakama, a member tribe, on fish management.

Public affairs manager Charles Hudson said that though the commission cannot issue a formal statement, he acknowledged he has been advising the Yakamas on several technical aspects of fish management at the dams.

Hudson said the commission supports economic development for member tribes and concurs with Strong's allegations that Grant has not been the best environmental steward.

"We've had some concern about their (Grant's) stewardship, and we've seen them make several questionable decisions regarding salmon management," Hudson said.

Combined, the two dams produce about 1,300 megawatts of electricity. Since Grant County is relatively small in size, most of the power is exported to larger metropolitan areas such as Seattle-Tacoma.

Published reports indicate that if Grant County retains control of the dams the city of Tacoma will have to look elsewhere for more expensive energy sources since those reports said Grant stated its intention to provide more of its inexpensive energy to attract industries.

For now both sides are gearing up for what looks to be a long fight. Strong said his side is willing to "fight to the finish." The licensing process will not be finished until late 2005 when the new licenses will be issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.