Grand Ronde moves forward with fishing platform at falls
Several weeks after holding a blessing ceremony to commemorate the future construction of a new fishing platform at Willamette Falls, members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde returned Monday, Oct. 1 to begin site preparation.
They did so despite a letter sent by Portland General Electric (PGE) to the tribes last week, which stated that PGE would pursue trespassing violations against tribal members if they came to the site to build the platform.
"As Portland General Electric (PGE) has reiterated many times, we welcome and support traditional tribal practices within our Willamette Falls Hydroelectric Project (FERC Project No. 2233) boundary, so long as those practices are consistent with PGE's safety, security and operational concerns as well as our legal obligations regarding our hydroelectric project," PGE Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Compliance Officer Lisa Kaner wrote in the Sept. 21 letter. "We disagree with CTGR's view in your letter that PGE's concerns have been resolved and that the CTGR has met the conditions of the Department of State Lands' Registration."
According to PGE spokesperson Steve Corson, the company has been working to come to a use agreement with the tribes but remains uncomfortable with allowing the project to proceed despite the Oregon Department State Lands giving it a seal of approval.
"We have had a lot of back and forth discussions with Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde about how best to proceed with getting an agreement in place to allow construction of scaffold for ceremonial fishing," Corson said. "Thus far we have not been successful in getting an agreement in place, and the tribes proceeded to request and were granted permit from the Department of State Lands to proceed. We filed an appeal of that decision in part based on the fact that we disagree with the Department of State Lands on the ownership of the property where scaffolds or platforms would be constructed."
Specifically, Corson said PGE needed permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to allow for any project to take place on its property that isn't related to the hydroelectric power operation from the T.W. Sullivan Plant.
"(We need) to address certain issues relating to safety, not just for tribal members fishing at site but for our own personnel working on project and the public's safety," Corson said. "We have good communication in place with the tribes for when it's safe and not safe to be conducting traditional practices at the falls, but we won't have same level of communication with the public who might see platforms and think that would be a fun place to do whatever."
The tribes have disputed this assertion, stating that the platform would be located on Department of State Land property — and not within the FERC project boundary.
PGE did not take any action against tribe members during the work that took place Oct. 1, according to Corson.
"I don't know that they actually tried to cross our property; they tried to access by boat," Corson said. "Our main concern would be if they tried to cross what is definitely, obviously PGE property."
He added that when PGE sent the letter, it also included a draft use agreement for the tribes to consider. According to Corson, the tribes did not respond to that draft agreement.
The letter from PGE came on the heels of a Sept. 12 Willamette Week article that detailed concerns from the Umatilla and Warm Springs Tribes about the Grand Ronde plans for the falls.
In the article, representatives from the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes criticized the Oregon Department of State Lands' decision to approve the fishing platform and said the Grand Ronde had overstated their historical fishing rights at the falls. Further, the other tribes said the Grand Ronde tribes were trying to expand their influence and perhaps lay groundwork for a casino in the Portland metro area.
Though the Grand Ronde itself — a collective of 26 regional Native American bands — was restored in 1983, it would take more than 30 years for its fishing rights to be returned in 2016. The tribes are allowed to remove 15 fish per year from the river; in the absence of a scaffold, tribal fishers have been forced to balance on the rocks near the falls while dipping their nets into the water — a safety hazard that prompted the application for the platform.
Grand Ronde spokesperson Sara Thompson said the comments in the Willamette Week article were "unfortunate" and that the Grand Ronde tribes were focused solely on restoring fishing traditions at the falls while improving safety with the platform.
"Their argument is that the Grand Ronde ... signed away their rights to the State of Oregon," Thompson said. "If that's truly the case, they should have no problem with the fishery. It's a state fishery on state lands."
Thompson added that other tribes did not voice opposition when the Grand Ronde's fishing rights were restored in 2016.
"They didn't appeal the original decision," she said. "The opposition only came when it came to building a platform."
While Thompson said she couldn't speak for others, she emphasized the common ground to be found between the three tribes.
"95 percent of our interests align: cleaner water, healthier salmon runs, healthier lamprey populations, cleaning up Portland harbors," Thompson said. "The opposition comes over this ceremonial fishing platform at Willamette Falls, and 15 fish."
Corson said PGE is well-aware of the dispute between the tribes over fishing territory, and that the company finds itself in a difficult position.
"I want to be very clear that we support whichever of the tribes — the Grand Ronde, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakima, all of them — we respect and honor and want to facilitate their ability to conduct ceremonial practices at the falls," Corson said. "But we need to have an agreement in place that will address these issues around safety and other questions before we proceed with that.
"However these issues are resolved, and we do believe they can be resolved, we need agreement in place before we allow Grand Ronde to either build a platform on our project lands or use our project lands to access these facilities."