By Eric Tegethoff
Washington News Service
SEATTLE – Native American tribes in Washington state received a victory Monday from a federal appeals court that ruled the state must pay to fix fish blocking culverts.
Culverts allow rivers and streams to flow underneath roadways, but can be trouble for salmon swimming upstream if the culverts are damaged or are too small.
Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, says this decision will go a long way toward protecting salmon in the Northwest.
“There’s an affirmative and positive duty on the United States to ensure the protection of the habitat, the conditions to not only survive but to thrive,” she states.
The Ninth Court Circuit of Appeals’ decision upholds a federal court’s decision from 2007 requiring Washington to invest $2.4 billion into culvert repairs over the next 15 years.
In 2015, Washington state’s Transportation and Fish and Wildlife departments estimated nearly 2,000 culverts blocked fish from upstream habitats.
The decision also marks a turning point for the fishing rights of Native American tribes.
In the 1970s, tribes gained the rights to 50 percent of harvestable fish in the state. But questions remained about what responsibility the state had to protect fishing habitats for tribes.
Sharp says with this decision and many others made around the country, courts now are considering states’ responsibilities to the environment.
“We’re starting to see courts apply indigenous knowledge and values that we’ve held and maintained for generations in courts of law and in decisions,” he stresses.
The 21 Washington tribes involved in this case originally sued the state over culverts with the backing of the U.S. Justice Department in 2001.