Culvert case about treaty rights could be a new landmark

UPDATE, Oct, 25
Former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife director Jeff Koenings testified in the federal culvert trial on Friday. See AP reporter Tim Klass’s story in the Kitsap Sun. Koenings told the court that diverting state dollars for culvert repair and replacement could harm salmon if it means less money for higher-priority salmon-restoration projects.
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I was beginning to wonder if I was the only environmental reporter who recognized the significance of a lawsuit involving Indian treaty rights and state culverts. I wrote about the case for the Kitsap Sun in March, after it appeared negotiations had broken down.

The outcome of the case could well determine how much power the courts hold over state budgets when it comes to the enforcement of Indian treaty rights.

After all, from the tribes’ perspective, the state has been dragging its feet in restoring salmon habitat — including the replacement of culverts that block the passage of salmon. On the other hand, the courts could force the state to spend money that it doesn’t have, or else shift dollars from education, social programs, law enforcement, even other environmental initiatives. That is why I think this is such an important precedent-setting case.

The issue is now in trial, having started in U.S. District Court last week. Reporter Craig Welch does a nice job of putting the issue into historical perspective in today’s Seattle Times.

I was on vacation when the trial started, so we referred the story to the Associated Press. AP reporter Tim Klass has done a good job of following the trial. See his first story in the Oct 13 Kitsap Sun and a follow-up in today’s paper.

If I hear the tribal attorneys correctly, they are looking to fix the major blocking culverts under state jurisdiction within 20 years, rather than the 50-60 years under the state’s current schedule.

If this case succeeds, the next logical step would be to go after counties — which may have hundreds of culverts that need attention. Other habitat issues also would be on the table. Anybody want the courts to set stream and shoreline buffers?

I suppose we’ll have plenty of time to talk about the implications once the decision is handed down. And there will be appeals, of course. No matter the final outcome, this case will have repercussions for decades to come.

4 thoughts on “Culvert case about treaty rights could be a new landmark

  1. Maybe the tribes will stop their relentless of gillnetting salmon to prove they aren’t just trying to restore the fishery so they can rape it? I’m a sport fisherman and I have to fish with a single barbless hook. My familys take this year in Hood Canal. One coho. Meanwhile the tribes gillnet from beach – their take on Sunday in one set (about 4 hours) – 1000 pounds of Chum and Coho.
    I’m sorry – but I dont take the tribes seriously. They say one thing out of one side of their mouth (Save salmon, restore creeks/culverts, etc – and i support that), but out of the other side of their mouth they flood the natural habitat with Millions upon millions of hatchery fish and slaughter them relentlessly with nets – not to mention shooting seals and the damage the nets cause to other wildlife.

    So seriously – how much do the tribes really care about saving salmon – they are not better than the non-tribal fishermen before them. The tribes want the fishery, for money.

  2. I refuse to defend tribal members who do something wrong, but there is a lot of misplaced anger when it comes to tribal fishing. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of tribal fishers to split the total harvestable catch, 50-50, with non-tribal fishers.

    Because non-Indian sport fishers far outnumber Indians, each angler is allowed to take home just a few chinook and coho. Tribal members take their share with nets. The larger numbers of chum salmon are captured in nets by both tribal and nontribal commercial fishers.

    We can have lively discussions about selective fishing, indiscriminate gillnets, how fish are counted, environmental ethics, and many other issues. But, as of this moment, the 50-50 split is a matter of law.

  3. UPDATE, Oct, 25
    Former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife director Jeff Koenings testified in the federal culvert trial on Friday. See AP reporter Tim Klass’s story in the Kitsap Sun. Koenings told the court that diverting state dollars for culvert repair and replacement could harm salmon if it means less money for higher-priority salmon-restoration projects.

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