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Senate unanimously approves plan to improve conditions at Columbia River tribal fishing sites

November 30, 2017
In The News

A unanimous U.S. Senate vote this week has given new hope to backers of promised housing for Native Americans along the Columbia River east of Portland.

In the wake of a White House decision to halt development of promised houses for Columbia River tribal members, a smaller initiative to maintain and upgrade 31 existing fishing sites where sometimes dozens of Native fishing crews live at least six months of the year is again gaining traction.

Oregon and Washington legislators again have asked for money to improve deplorable safety and sanitation conditions at small riverside camp sites, where tribal member launch boats, clean salmon and camp in tents and makeshift shacks.

The bill, which was introduced in March and approved by the Senate on Wednesday, calls on the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to visit the sites and study what is needed to improve them, then bring the infrastructure in line with the amount of use they get. That would include improved sewer connections, electrical grids and adequate water, among other needs. Officials have not attached a dollar figure to the bill, nor has any money been allocated.

An amendment from Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, also passed unanimously. He asked that the federal comptroller assess whether the proposed work at the fishing sites was effective.

Last year, The Oregonian/OregonLive visited 31 sites that the federal government built to enable members of four tribes to maintain their U.S. treaty rights to catch salmon. Many were overcrowded, with 40 families crammed into a space meant for 20 people at one location. Almost all had bathrooms that backed up and not enough toilets and shower stalls. Trash overflowed at most sites, and people who stay jacked into the few solar panels at each spot for electricity. Other people used generators and propane heaters that occasionally caused fires. Only one had fire safety equipment.

The Oregon and Washington congressional delegations introduced a bill last year that called for cleanup money, but it died. They reintroduced the bill in both houses of Congress, where it needed to go through the committees in both before it could be voted on by the full chambers.

It stalled for much of 2017, but it passed the full Senate Wednesday. Oregon Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici, both Democrats, filed the same bill in the House. It has not moved since being introduced in March.

"Today, the Senate made a strong statement that the current conditions at Columbia River fishing sites are unacceptable, unjust, and must be fixed," said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat. "I've personally seen the shocking conditions at Lone Pine. We owe better to the Northwest's tribal communities, and the very least we can do is ensure basic sanitation and safety. I'm going to keep pushing until this bill is at the President's desk and signed into law."    

Bipartisan momentum was quashed, however, on the drive to create a new village for those who historically fished the Columbia River. That would do even more than the site upgrades to help members of the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes.

"This is a positive step on our long road to properly honor our obligations to the Columbia River Treaty Tribes," said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill. "It's so important that we continue to make progress to provide safe, sanitary housing and infrastructure at these fishing access sites, so tribal members can exercise their protected rights."

The Office of Management and Budget has decided not to grant a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers request for almost $1.6 million to finish planning a village for tribal members near The Dalles. Those people or their ancestors were displaced when the federal government erected a series of Columbia River Dams that flooded their riverside villages.

Members of the four tribes lived along the river for centuries and lost their homes as well as their center of social and economic life when the Army Corps built three dams: Bonneville, then the Dalles and finally John Day.

In the 80 years since, tribal members instead moved onto the fishing sites, which were built to accommodate no more than 20 people apiece to camp temporarily during fishing season.

The subsequent decision to withhold the money "is an outrageous, unjust decision by the Trump White House," Merkley said in an October report by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Former Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy allocated about $3 million in fiscal year 2017 to start planning a village at The Dalles DamBut only half the money was immediately available under a continuing resolution that set budget priorities.

With that money, the Army Corps started conversations with tribal members and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission about what they would want from a village, conducted cultural surveys and reports, took soil samples and did other testing.

The bulk of the work remains, though. In a letter from Kevin Brice, the deputy district engineer for project management, he says that Army Corps staff won't be able to draw designs for the village, evaluate various sites for their feasibility and socioeconomic impacts or identify the best one without the rest of the funds.

The money allocated to maintaining the sites is also running out quickly, due to the high level of use. The Bureau of Indian Affairs contracts with the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission to care for the sites. Once the money runs out, it is unclear how the sites would be cleaned or repaired.

"The bipartisan support for the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act highlights the commitment of the Pacific Northwest, and its leadership from both sides of the aisle, to address the conditions at tribal fishing sites along the Columbia River," said Jaime A. Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We are grateful for their work and join the other voices from around Indian Country that are calling upon the House to act."