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Natives have fished at the spot for millennia; four tribal groups support PGE's move but Grand Ronde does not

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: THE CONFEDERATED TRIBES OF THE GRAND RONDE - The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde first erected the fishing platform at Willamette Falls in 2018. Portland General Electric has filed an eminent domain claim in federal court for the sacred land beside Willamette Falls that has been a culturally and spiritually significant spot for Native tribes for millennia and which has become a point of contention for the power company, Department of State Lands and tribal groups in recent years.

PGE, which owns land on the West Linn side of the river and operates its hydroelectric power project at the falls, filed to condemn the land April 8 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.

Though Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, Tribal Council for Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation expressed appreciation for PGE's filing, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, which built a fishing platform on the contested land in 2018, objected to the latest move from the power company.

"These proposed condemnation actions at Willamette Falls are nothing more than PGE trying to steal one of Oregon's gems from the public trust. PGE's only concern is protecting their business relationships with these tribes at the expense of Grand Ronde's ability to exercise a legally authorized ceremonial fishery from a temporary platform at Willamette Falls," the Grand Ronde said in a statement provided by Communications Director Sara Thompson.

"They are trying to circumvent a state process under a false narrative surrounding 'safety,' and their claims that they have made every reasonable attempt to resolve this issue is simply not true. Oregon's natural wonders belong to all Oregonians, not industry, and not PGE."

These tribes have long harvested lamprey and other fish at the falls for spiritual and subsistence purposes.

"Umatilla Tribe supports PGE's exercise of corporate governance under its FERC license to get at the truth of the disputed issue between it and the state of Oregon," said Brent Hall, a tribal attorney for the CTUIR, in response to the filing.

The Siletz Indians and Warm Springs tribes similarly expressed support for PGE's actions while calling out the Grand Ronde for ceasing to collaborate with the other tribes.

"PGE has worked in good faith to resolve a property dispute that has adversely impacted all tribes who have interests, claims and rights at Willamette Falls," said Chairman Ray Tsumpti of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. "Unfortunately, the Grand Ronde tribes stepped away from those discussions some time ago."

In the civil complaint, lawyers for PGE asserted its authority to condemn land for the hydroelectric project based on the Federal Power Act — which aimed to coordinate hydroelectric projects in the United States.

PGE argued that though the state does not own the land beside the falls, the Department of State Lands claimed an ownership interest in the site in 2018, when it granted the Grand Ronde tribes permission to build its fishing platform.

According to the filing, PGE approached the Department of State Lands in January of this year, offering to acquire all of the department's claimed rights, titles and interests in the land for $150,000

"To date, PGE has been unable to contract with Defendant DSL for the acquisition of title to the Property," the filing stated.

When the Grand Ronde erected its fishing platform in 2018, three of the region's other confederated tribes (Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, Tribal Council for Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation) appealed the state's decision granting permission for the platform. PGE said it was concerned about the safety of Native fishers using the platform, but the other tribes contested Grand Ronde's right to fish at the falls.

The state rejected the appeal, upholding its approval for Grand Ronde to build the fishing platform.

Grand Ronde has used the fishing platform each fishing season since 2018, taking the structure down at the end of each season.

In a statement on PGE's website, Dave Robertson, the company's vice president of public affairs, said PGE had exhausted its options for reasonably solving this dispute. Filing for eminent domain was PGE's best option for resolving the issue, he said.

"No matter the outcome, PGE recognizes the area's immense importance to Northwest tribes," Robertson said. "That's why we filed a request to establish a perpetual cultural practices easement with FERC early last year, to facilitate safe and equitable access for tribes to engage in traditional cultural practices consistent with our FERC obligations."

PGE filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last May that would grant perpetual cultural practice easements, allowing the tribes to "legally" fish at the falls. In response, the Grand Ronde and Umatilla Indians stated they already legally fished at the falls.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has not issued a decision on that application. Andrea Platt, a spokesperson for PGE, said the federal commission's decision would not impact PGE seeking to condemn the disputed land.

The Department of State Lands did not immediately return a request for comment.

This story will be updated.

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