For the first time, federal government acknowledges damage Columbia River dams caused tribes


A report from the U.S. Department of the Interior released Tuesday documents the historic and ongoing harms federal dams along the Columbia and lower Snake rivers caused area tribes.

The report, called the Tribal Circumstances Analysis, fulfills a commitment the department made in an agreement to stay litigation brought by a group of Northwest tribes and the National Wildlife Federation.

It marks the first time the U.S. government has comprehensively detailed the harms that federal dams have inflicted and continue to impose on tribes in the Pacific Northwest, according to an Interior Department news release.

"Since time immemorial, Tribes along the Columbia River and its tributaries have relied on Pacific salmon, steelhead and other native fish species for sustenance and their cultural and spiritual ways of life," Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement. "Acknowledging the devastating impact of federal hydropower dams on Tribal communities is essential to our efforts to heal and ensure that salmon are restored to their ancestral waters."

The 73-page report also provides recommendations for how the government can uphold its trust responsibilities to the tribes by addressing these impacts.

The Nez Perce Tribe said in a news release that the report restores the rule of law, and it also supports immediate action to prevent salmon extinction.

"The United States — by telling the truth about the historic and ongoing injustices the federal dams have imposed on our people and by embracing its Treaty and trust obligations — is upholding the rule of law and highlighting the urgency to act to prevent salmon extinction," said Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

Along with other tribes and intertribal organizations, the Nez Perce Tribe criticized previous environmental impact statements for failing to evaluate the impact of federal dams on the Columbia Basin tribes and on the fulfillment of treaty and trust obligations.

Wheeler said the new report "is a stark reminder that the federal dams were built on the backs of our Tribal Nations and our people, and continue to decimate our salmon populations and our culture, sovereignty, and way of life."

When government and private interests began damming the river more than a century ago, it altered the natural flow of the river, inundated hundreds of thousands of acres of land and disrupted the ecosystem. The tribes were disproportionately harmed, the report said. The dams transformed the river to serve other economic interests and transferred wealth away from the tribes, according to the report.

Flooding destroyed homes and villages, burial grounds, sacred sites and traditional fishing sites, including the elimination of Celilo Falls and Kettle Falls, the report said. Depletion of salmon and other species interfered with the tribes' fishing and hunting treaty rights, and harmed the tribes' spiritual, cultural, physical and economic health, which continues today.  The report recommends government agencies strengthen tribal sovereignty, advance tribally led restoration initiatives and prioritize fulfilling treaty responsibilities. Federal agencies should also acknowledge and integrate the inequities outlined in the report into National Environmental Policy Act reviews of proposed federal actions.

The report underscores the Biden administration's effort to restore salmon and other native fish in the Columbia River Basin. Last year, the administration announced agreements with tribes to invest more than $500 million to restore populations in the lower and upper basin over 20 years.

"We know we must act urgently to prevent extinction, and this report reaffirms the need for the United States and us to move forward together as Treaty partners," Wheeler said. "We look forward to continuing to work with the United States to take bold and immediate actions to ensure a future where our rivers run free, our salmon return in abundance, and our people thrive."


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