Democratizing Treaty Fishing Rights: Denying Fossil-Fuel Exports in the Pacific Northwest

Contributor Roles

Jeffrey B. Litwak is an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and counsel for Columbia River Gorge Commission.

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Colorado Natural Resources, Energy & Environmental Law Review

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Colo. Nat. Resources Energy & Env't L. Rev.


Indian treaty fishing rights scored an important judicial victory recently when an equally divided U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the so-called “culverts case,” which decided that the Stevens Treaties of the 1850s give the tribes a right to protect salmon migration obstructed by barrier road culverts. The implications of that decision on other habitat damaging activities have yet to be ascertained, but even prior to the resolution of the culverts case there were significant indications that federal, state, and local administrative agencies were acting to protect treaty fishing rights from the adverse effects of large fossil-fuel export projects proposed throughout the Pacific Northwest. After briefly explaining the culverts decision, this article examines five recent examples of agencies denying permits for fossil-fuel developments at least in part of treaty rights grounds. We draw some lessons from these examples concerning the importance of tribal participation in administrative processes and explore some knotty evidentiary issues that tribal efforts to protect their historic fishing sites may entail. We conclude that safeguarding their treaty rights in the 21st century will require tribes to be as vigilant about the administrative process as they have been about seeking judicial protection.

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