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Northwest Tribes Fight for Treaty Rights in Face of Coal-Transport Plan

Treaty fishing rights are meaningless if there are no healthy fish populations left to harvest, say Pacific Northwest tribes, fishers and tribal environmental organizations.

Tribal leaders fear that a proposal to transport coal through sensitive waterways could undermine the salmon population they have worked so hard to build up over the decades since the Boldt decision in 1974. The federal court decision affirmed the affected tribes’ treaty rights to half the harvestable salmon, establishing tribal co-management of Washington State fisheries, and their harvest finally increased.

The environmental degradation of many waterways in Washington state has already resulted in the lowest salmon yields in nearly 40 years, according to a report from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Now, tribal and environmental leaders say, a proposal to transport coal by railway through these sensitive areas could make matters worse.

Seeking to tap lucrative Asian markets, a number of coal companies hope to export millions of tons of their product from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to six proposed shipping terminals along Oregon and Washington waterways. Proposals from several companies, including Ambre Energy and Arch Coal, are in the environmental-analysis stage.

Many worry that such a network of coal transport would degrade salmon and cultural-foods habitats as well as affect treaty rights. Among the concerned groups are the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)’s Tribal Lands Program, and tribal nations like the Lummi in northwest Washington and the Yakama in eastern Washington.

CRITFC expressed its concerns in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency tasked with overseeing the proposed coal plan. Arguing that “the pressures to Basin fish will be substantial,” CRITFC said that coal dust from increased train traffic would harm health, wildlife and food. Currently a single rail line transports coal through the Cascade Mountains from Wyoming.

“Our treaty rights to first foods—salmon, deer, chokecherries, mountain sheep, wild roots and other ­resources—are retained by the tribes, and they weren’t given to us by the government,” said Bruce Jim, a Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs elder who serves on its Fish and Wildlife Committee. “Moving coal through our land will threaten these rights and our connections to these plants and animals.”

The NWF has also weighed in with a report titled The True Cost of Coal. It predicted habitat degradation from port expansions and shipping traffic; decreased water quality from coal dust; mercury deposits from coal burning and wind-driven transport; increased carbon pollution; and ocean acidification.

In addition, the report said that studies of similar situations elsewhere around the world offer insights into the possible deleterious effects of coal transport in the Pacific Northwest. The studies were of coal dust on mangroves near Cape Town, South Africa; of coal combustion on juvenile fish populations in South Carolina; of juvenile salmonids and coal dust dispersal in British Columbia; and of fly ash dumping on algae off England’s coast.

Read more on treaty rights erosion via environmental degradation.

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Northwest Tribes Fight for Treaty Rights in Face of Coal-Transport Plan

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