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Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission tours former Blue Heron paper mill

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Many local tribal leaders recently got their first opportunity to tour the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill site, where the Willamette Falls Legacy Project is planning a public walkway to reach the natural wonder.

“Willamette Falls is really important to the tribes as one of the only places in Oregon where we can harvest lamprey,” said Sara Thompson, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a technical and coordinating agency for the Yakama, Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes.

Coalition leaders were in Oregon City for their monthly meeting on May 25, when Metro officials offered them a tour of the Blue Heron site.

Kelly Reid, the interim manager for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, leads local tribal leaders on a tour through the former Blue Heron Paper Co. site.Commission chairman Jeremy Red Star Wolf, a member of the Umatilla tribe, said the primary concern of the tribes is restoring the fish habitat at Willamette Falls. Wolf was concerned to see some initial plans to install walkways or public parks right next to the falls, and he said the tribes would like to see a focus on native plants along the riverbank that honors the nearby floodplain and helps wildlife.

PHOTOS BY RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Local tribal leaders, members of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, check out Willamette Falls.“We’ve been restoring lamprey in the Umatilla River, where we’ve been doing some translocation projects, but this is the only place we can harvest for sustenance,” Wolf said.

Commission vice-chairman Patrick Luke, of the Yakama, echoed Wolf’s concerns. Luke and other tribal members have seen plans for a whitewater park to attract kayaking tourism to Willamette Falls and want to make sure that the development wouldn’t disturb fishing habitat. Nonprofit We Love Clean Rivers has proposed a manmade body of water and surrounding park that would start as an offshoot of the Willamette, snake alongside the riverwalk, then circle through downtown Oregon City and run parallel with Highway 99E, before returning to the river.

Brian Vaughn, a scientist for the Metro regional government, was among the local officials managing the project’s progress who assured tribal leaders about their concerns.

“We’re looking at what we can do to this site to improve the health of the Willamette River,” Vaughn said.

Kelly Reid, the interim manager for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, said one thing that has been ruled out is any plan to open up the rocks on Willamette Falls for the public to climb on. She also said that preservation of natural resources was a key aspect of the project.

This month, a tribal advisory group will be convening with Metro to help with the design of the riverwalk and the interpretive signage near Willamette Falls that will discuss the tribes’ rich history there.

Tribal fishing rights affirmed

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission was created in 1977 so that local tribes would have a unified voice with issues related to their treaty-designated fishing rights.

CRITFC and the four tribes employ more than 500 people — including biologists, lawyers, policy analysts and fisheries enforcement officers — who work to ensure that tribal treaty rights are protected not only on the Columbia River and its tributaries, but also in the Pacific Ocean zones where the Columbia fish go to feed. All of this multifaceted approach to helping salmon is done under the direction of the four member tribes.

“It’s the largest workf orce dedicated to salmon recovery in the world,” said Paul Lumley, executive director of the tribal commission.

Tribal fishing rights at Willamette Falls and elsewhere in the Columbia Basin are guaranteed by the 1855 treaties between the United States and the four tribes. Over time, local governments encroached upon these rights, and there was steep decline in salmon numbers starting in the late 1800s.

In 1957, Celilo Falls disappeared beneath the waters backed up behind The Dalles Dam, and a period of turmoil began, called the “Salmon Wars,” in which Native fisherman often were banned from the best fishing spots. Lumley said that in Oregon City, tribal fisherman harvesting lamprey had to sleep on the rocks next to the falls because they weren’t allowed to dock on shore.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, court cases reaffirmed the tribes’ treaty fishing rights, the most prominent being U.S. v. Oregon and U.S. v. Washington. The cases have been interpreted to mean that tribes are entitled to a “fair share” of the salmon harvest, or half of the “harvestable fish.”

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission representatives Damon McKay and Sara Thompson walk along the current path toward Willamette Falls through the former Blue Heron Paper Co. site.For years, the tribes have been a part of the chorus of voices telling of the danger and risks posed by fossil fuel transportation through the Columbia River Gorge. Unfortunately, those worries were validated this month, Lumley said.

“Every day, fossil fuel transportation through this ecologically and culturally important area risks the health, safety and economic security of those living along the river,” Lumley said. “Tribal members fishing on the Columbia face even larger risks and potential impacts. Not only are they exposed day in and day out to the air and water in and along the Columbia, these families eat a diet heavy in fish caught from the river at risk.”

On June 3, a train derailment and spill showed the potentially catastrophic environmental risks that fossil fuel transportation along the Columbia River poses. If projects like the currently proposed Tesoro-Savage oil terminal or Millennium Bulk coal terminal are allowed to move forward, Lumley predicted that the accident would only be the first of what could be many more to come.

“The accident is a reminder that we should be reducing, not increasing, the number of oil and coal trains along the river,” he said. “We cannot stand idly by to this danger to the river, the salmon and the people and communities who rely on them.”