Supreme Court tie favors Washington state Indian tribes


The question is whether Washington State needs to repair or replace hundreds of culverts, large pipes that allow streams to pass under roads but can block migrating salmon if they become clogged or too steep. to navigate.

SEATTLE (AP) – Washington state must restore salmon habitat by removing barriers that block fish migration after the U.S. Supreme Court left a lower court order in place on Monday.

The judges were divided 4-4 in the long-standing dispute between the state, the Northwest Indian tribes and the federal government. The link is used to confirm a lower court decision.

Judge Anthony Kennedy withdrew from the case because he participated in an earlier stage when he served on the 9th United States Court of Appeals.

The question is whether the state has to pay billions to repair or replace hundreds of culverts – large pipes that allow streams to pass under roads but can block migrating salmon if they become blocked or if they are too steep to navigate.

Leaders of several tribes in western Washington applauded the decision on Monday, calling it a victory that asserts their treaty rights while protecting the salmon at the heart of their way of life.

Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, said it was a victory for treaty rights, river rights and salmon rights.

“This is not only the treaty right of tribes to fish, but also the inherent right to harvest from an abundant and healthy supply of salmon,” he said in a statement.

Lorraine Loomis, chairperson of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the decision “would open up hundreds of kilometers of high-quality salmon habitat that will produce hundreds of thousands of additional salmon each year for harvest by Indians and non-Indians “.

The Supreme Court heard in April the state’s appeal against a ruling by the U.S. 9th Court of Appeals. This court upheld a lower court order in 2013 requiring the state to repair or replace hundreds of priority culverts within 17 years.

Washington argued that its treaties with the tribes created no obligation to restore salmon habitat. He said the ruling would force him to do work that would not benefit the salmon because other barriers could completely block the fish, and it would also make state taxpayers accountable for fixing the problems created. by the federal government when it specified the design of the old highway culverts.

“It is unfortunate that Washington state taxpayers are taking all the responsibility for the faulty design of the federal government’s culverts,” State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement.

He said salmon cannot reach many state culverts because they are blocked by culverts owned by others, such as counties and the federal government.

“The legislature has a great responsibility to ensure that the state meets its obligations under the court ruling,” Ferguson said.

In asking for a Supreme Court review, Ferguson disagreed with other state officials, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz.

“For some time now, I have hoped that instead of litigation, we could focus together on our ongoing work to restore salmon habitat,” Inslee said.

“It’s time to stop fighting over who should do what,” Franz said.

The US government sued Washington in 2001 on behalf of the 21 tribes to force it to replace culverts with structures that allow passage of fish. Because the pipes prevent salmon from reaching their spawning grounds, they deprive tribes of treaty-guaranteed fishing rights, according to the lawsuit.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ordered Washington to repair or replace more than 1,000 culverts blocking access to 1,600 miles (2,575 kilometers) of salmon habitat. It also set a deadline of 2030 for high priority barriers.

By next year, the state’s transportation department reportedly spent $ 200 million to repair 66 high-priority culverts with about 425 remaining, said Paul Wagner, who heads the agency’s fish passage program.

“This will be a big win for the fishery,” said Bob Anderson, professor of law and director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington.

He said that since 1905 the court has consistently upheld the tribal position that they are entitled to a fair share of the salmon, and the implied rights that go with it. “This case is a logical extension of those earlier decisions.”

State Senator Reuven Carlyle, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment and Technology, said Monday’s decision was “a compelling function to be doubled down at all levels to re-prioritize our approach to salmon “.

Carlyle said while he doesn’t think the legislature needs an immediate special session to review the decision, the work will be done before the next legislative session which begins in January.


AP writers Mark Sherman in Washington, DC, and Rachel La Corte in Olympia contributed.


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