Northwest Tribes Sue To Protect Salmon

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Salmon-friendly culvert - Thurston County, Washington

Nineteen Tribes have teamed up to bring federal litigation against the State of Washington to speed up the pace of dealing with more than 1,800 fish barriers associated with state highways, which block more than 3,000 miles of potential stream habitat for salmon. Washington’s legislature has funded culvert replacement since 1991, but the current pace of construction could take up to 100 years to fix the problems.

The Tribal consortium previously prevailed in litigating a preliminary issue regarding the state’s duty to protect and enhance salmon runs. In 2007, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled that treaties signed in the 1850s impose a duty on the state to “refrain from building or operating culverts under state-maintained roads that hinder fish passage and thereby diminish the number of fish that would otherwise be available for tribal harvest.” Tribes and the state have worked to craft a acceptable settlement since then, but lack of progress and funding prompted a new round of claims.

Dan O’Neal, chairman of the Washington State Transportation Commission, expressed little hope for a legislative solution in the near term.

“The Legislature right now is dealing with all kinds of issues. From a transportation standpoint, revenues are down. Gas taxes aren’t producing as much revenues because people are driving less or using more efficient cars or whatever. I don’t think this thing, frankly, has percolated to the top of legislators’ lists, I don’t think they will change anything unless the court directs it.”

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