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Tribes Want Ecological Concerns Prioritized In Columbia River Treaty Negotiations

Jill Smail is the lead negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty for the U.S. State Department.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio
Jill Smail is the lead negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty for the U.S. State Department.

U.S. and Canadian officials are holding closed door meetings Wednesday and Thursday in British Columbia on the Columbia River Treaty. Tribes across the Northwest hope the outcomes include their demands for a healthy environment. 

The Columbia River Treaty was ratified more than 50 years ago to manage power and floods throughout a watershed about twice the size of New Mexico. Indigenous groups in both the U.S. and Canada depended on the land, water and other natural resources of the Columbia River basin for livelihood and culture.

"But back when the first treaty was done in 1964, none of the 15 basin tribes were part of that negotiation. And we were left out, as many other people were left out as well," says Rich Janssen, head of the department of natural resources for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.

The treaty spurred the construction of five dams; only one of those was in the U.S. – in Libby, Montana. Those dams displaced communities and also cultural resources for tribes in the Columbia River Basin.

This time around, tribes were again excluded from a seat at the table, despite demands from indigenous leaders for representation. The negotiating team is led by the State Department, and includes the Department of Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At a town hall in Kalispell last month, lead negotiator Jill Smail said, "We value the tribes' expertise and experience and are working to have meaningful engagement throughout the negotiations."

Janssen says Smail visited CSKT leaders and representatives from a 15-tribe coalition in separate gatherings while in Montana for that March meeting.

"She made the effort, and that means a lot to tribal governments."

He says the meetings with Smail went well, and that the meeting with CSKT tribal council focused mostly on the need to make sure no changes in operations at Libby or Hungry Horse dam could harm natural resources in the area.

"There’s resident fish like bull trout and westslope cutthroat that we’d like to see enhanced and come back because those are a part of our culture, part of our history. And once you lose that, it’s like losing a part of yourself," Janssen says.

He says it’s a subset of a broader demand, across all 15 U.S. tribes in the Upper Columbia basin to include the well-being of the ecosystem on equal footing with flood control and power generation, the two original intents of the treaty.

DR Michel, executive director for the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), a consortium of five indigenous groups in the basin, says further downstream this new tenet of the treaty could mean restoring salmon populations along with improving other aspects of the once-rich aquatic ecosystem. But he’s not happy with the lack of representation.

"While it’s not ideal or what we would expect in this day and age, or what we've asked for, you’ve gotta deal, or you’ve gotta work with what you’re provided."

So Michel says he and many others continue to work to get their voices heard. That means focusing on the intrinsic, cultural importance of the watershed, but also focusing on the economic bottom line. UCUT commissioned a study in 2017 that puts the value of the natural resources in the Upper Columbia River basin at $198 billion. Improving the ecosystem could contribute additional billions in value, the report says.

"We’ve gotta take advantage of this opportunity," Michel says. "It’s like once in a generation or once in a lifetime opportunity to correct some of these historic wrongs."

Both Michel and the CSKT’s Rich Janssen were part of a 15-tribe coalition that contributed to a regional recommendation that was submitted to the U.S. State Department in 2013. That document includes a demand for a resilient and healthy ecosystem.

Janssen says that in order to preserve headway already made on the negotiations, officials don’t discuss the details of the meetings.

"We’re not at the table, we don’t know what is being said back and forth. But yes, I believe the tribes are cautiously optimistic, maybe. Based on past history of our dealings with the federal government, you gotta be cautious."

This week’s meetings mark the sixth round of Columbia River Treaty negotiations. Canada’s obligations to hold back flood water could change in 2024. That’s also the first year the U.S. or Canada could terminate the treaty, provided a 10-year notice.

Officials haven’t yet offered a timeline for finalizing negotiations.

Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer based in Livingston, Montana.
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