Congress

Northwest tribes fear corporate interests trump treaty rights

Mel Sheldon, chairman of Tulalip tribes, speaks at a rally in Washington D.C. last month as tribal leaders gathered to urge Congress to uphold treaty rights and reject permits for a shipping terminal in the Lummi tribe’s fishing waters.
Mel Sheldon, chairman of Tulalip tribes, speaks at a rally in Washington D.C. last month as tribal leaders gathered to urge Congress to uphold treaty rights and reject permits for a shipping terminal in the Lummi tribe’s fishing waters. McClatchy

The fight by tribal leaders from the Pacific Northwest to protect their treaty-protected fisheries against a corporate interests escalated Thursday when the House passed an energy bill that included a controversial amendment that many tribes opposed.

Their concerns are focused on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ investigation into the environmental and treaty impacts of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Washington. It would create a new shipping point for bulk commodities, mainly coal.

The tribes are worried that their interests take a backseat because the amendment would slow any denial of new exporting centers until all federal review processes are complete, delaying treaty right evaluations.

“The proposed amendment would undermine the existing process, and that definitely doesn’t make sense to change the overall NEPA process for one project,” Lummi Indian Business Council Chairman Tim Ballew II said, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act.

Ballew and six other area tribal leaders met with members of Congress earlier this week, urging them to vote against the amendment. It will now move onto the Senate.

Lummi Nation will continue to stand strong with our 10-tribe alliance to defend our land and waters from members of Congress more interested in protecting corporate interests than the rights of treaty tribes across the country.

Lummi Indian Business Council Chairman Tim Ballew II

While the Lummi worked to stop the terminal, which Ballew said would destroy the tribe’s ancestral lands and damage waterways for ancient fishing traditions, Montana’s Crow Tribe backs the development.

“Our economic hopes are almost completely dependent on securing a port for exporting our low-sulfur coal,” Crow Tribe Chairman Darrin Old Coyote wrote in a letter in support of the amendment.

Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, an amendment co-sponsor, said it does not undermine Native Americans’ treaty rights, but ensures the review process for such developments are thorough and fair. The Corps is expected to release its Environmental Impact Statement in 2017.

But Zinke and his co-sponsor, Rep. David McKinley, R-West Virginia, were worried they would cut that process short for treaty reviews. The Crow Tribe is in Zinke’s district.

“It’s about fairness of the process, it’s not about coal, commodities, nor is it about treaty rights,” Zinke said. “It would be unprecedented for the Army Corps of Engineers to make a judgment on treaty rights” before the environment review is completed.

But the implications of the amendment are what bothers opponents, like Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, who called it “damaging and disingenuous.” He said the amendment is contradictory for Republicans who often oppose environmental regulations. But in this case, he said the regulations would benefit the coal industry.

“The amendment seems to be more of a stealth approach to advance the project, to stall the corps’ decision and undermine our treaty right requests,” Ballew said.

Zinke and McKinley have introduced similar amendments that didn’t pass, and both signed a letter with 17 other lawmakers to the Army Corps of Engineers calling on it to complete the environmental review. Sixteen senators, led by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, sent a similar letter. Despite the outcome of the amendment, the corps will make an independent review of the project and treaty rights, either concurrently or consequentially.

The 1855 U.S. treaties with Pacific Northwest Native American tribes, including the Lummi, reserved their right for fishing in their “usual and accustomed areas.” The Crow Tribe also has similar rights, Zinke said, and both deserve to be respected.

Ballew said they have hosted the Crow on their reservation to discuss their conflicting interests.

“Just as we’ve made it clear that one of our main tasks is to protect our treaty fishing rights, they’ve also made it clear they have interest in exploiting their resources,” Ballew said. “I’m confident that the right thing will happen.”

Grace Toohey: 202-383-6025, @grace_2e

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