Culvert case about treaty rights could be a new landmarkOctober 20th, 2009 by cdunagan
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.
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.