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Pacific Northwest tribes want to hold American leaders accountable and remove 4 dams

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the Pacific Northwest, tribal governments are pressuring President Biden to make good on his pledge to uphold treaties in Indian country. Tribes there want four large dams removed from the Snake River in Washington state in order to protect the salmon, whose numbers are dwindling. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Growing up, Shannon Wheeler heard stories passed down from elders about the enormous salmon runs here on this tributary just a few miles upstream of the Snake River. Fish making the long journey up here from the Pacific to spawn were also huge and hearty.

SHANNON WHEELER: Those are the types of stories even Lewis and Clark talk about.

SIEGLER: Wheeler is vice chairman of the Nez Perce tribe, which first sued the U.S. government in the 1990s as salmon in parts of this basin were on the brink of extinction. Despite years of work helping them get around the dams, the populations remain about the same as back then.

WHEELER: And we should know that a keystone species like salmon go extinct, well, who's next?

SIEGLER: The Nez Perce are pushing for swift passage of a rare bipartisan bill before Congress. It would breach four dams, drain reservoirs and open up 140 miles of river for the fish to spawn in. A new report by the state of Washington estimates that could increase salmon runs fifteenfold. And for Wheeler, it's also about upholding treaties signed in the 1850s, in which the U.S. government promised to protect his people's ancestral lands.

WHEELER: We ceded over 13 million acres to the United States of America. We aided the United States of America and its growth. All we're asking for is for the United States of America to uphold their responsibility and their promises.

SIEGLER: Across the Northwest, dams are being removed lately with an eye toward species protection but also cultural responsibility. Eunice Blavascunas is an anthropologist at nearby Whitman College in Washington.

EUNICE BLAVASCUNAS: This region was settled in a way that cheated a lot of people. That reckoning is about recognizing Indigenous people as political agents, as human beings with a long cultural legacy.

SIEGLER: One, she says, that far predates the construction of the four Snake River dams, which started in the 1950s. But the Biden administration, with its carbon-free energy goals, is also in a bind. These dams provide enough power for some 800,000 homes, and barges along the river system dramatically reduce shipping costs for farmers, as they tout in this new ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "NORTHWEST RIVER PARTNERS - AD 3")

MARCI GREEN: The Pacific Northwest is the breadbasket for our region and the world. Keeping Snake River dams in operation is essential to keep our farms working.

SIEGLER: Most wheat farmers here can't ship by rail, and barges are a lot cheaper than trucking. Ryan Poe farms in remote central Washington.

RYAN POE: Obviously, I feel like breaching is, you know, just a - you know, a catastrophic for a lot of us other users of these systems.

SIEGLER: But Poe is also a sportsman and wants to see the salmon saved, too. Taxpayers have spent millions over the years on hatcheries, fish ladders, even driving the fish in trucks around the dams. Tim Dykstra is a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has long maintained that dams and salmon can coexist.

TIM DYKSTRA: We have spent a great deal of effort to look at the dams and do our best to make the dams as invisible as possible to fish.

SIEGLER: Federal officials say a high number of salmon survive passing through the four dams. But climate change and poor ocean conditions are also reducing their numbers. Still, the U.S. now has its first ever Indigenous interior secretary. Touring Idaho this month, Deb Haaland said tribes are the original stewards of the land here, and close consultation with them is ongoing.

DEB HAALAND: I think the salmon are incredibly important, and they have tremendous cultural and traditional meaning to Indian tribes across the West.

SIEGLER: On the Nez Perce Reservation, Shannon Wheeler heard that as a sign that tribes are finally getting a voice in American politics.

WHEELER: We definitely feel that the needle is moving, and we definitely know that our concerns are making it to the highest levels.

SIEGLER: And he says they're ready to hold American leaders accountable. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Lapwai, Idaho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.