Removing the Klamath Dams — One part of the struggle

This is an excerpt of an article in Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground.

The Strategy

The story that follows tells how a coalition made up of the Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, and Klamath tribes; the Pacific Coast Commercial Fisherman’s Association; and the environmental group Friends of the River fought the relicensing of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in the U.S. regulatory arena, the courts, and the public relations stage of multinational finance.

The coalition first raised its concerns at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing hearings. They demanded, at minimum, that PacificCorp install fish ladders to allow salmon to swim upstream past the dams, and adopt a power-generating operations plan that ensures adequate water flow for young smolts and spawning adults. But the company reneged on its promise to study ways to modify the dams, saying that building fish ladders would make their power too expensive to sell. They proposed trucking and barging the fish past the dams, a strategy that has proved disastrous on other rivers; on the Snake River in Washington and Idaho, barged smolts’ chance of returning to spawn is 40 percent lower than those that navigate the turbines on their own.

Next, the Klamath Tribes adopted a tactic used by many Pacific Northwest tribes in salmon restoration: they filed a $1 billion suit against PacificCorp for economic and cultural damage caused by the 88- year absence of salmon from their waters. The suit put pressure on PacificCorp in an area important to the company — its finances. A billion dollars is a lot of money. However, in press releases and interviews, the Klamath Tribes’ representatives focused on their long struggle to restore the salmon runs in order to impress upon the public that the PacificCorp dams destroyed the major source of livelihood for an entire people.
scottish protest

The intertribal coalition traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, in July 2004 and staged a sophisticated media campaign aimed at educating the stockholders about the "green energy" company’s salmon-killing practices and at winning over the Scottish people to their cause. Members of the delegation met with investment firms with a stake in ScottishPower and the European Union’s Human Rights Commission. They held a press conference at the competitor’s dam and a traditional salmon bake where tribal delegates served wild Atlantic Salmon to members of the Scottish Parliament.

The coalition’s strategy placed tribal delegation members at the center of the campaign, while non-Indians took on support roles. In Scotland, the media, the public, and even government officials were interested in the delegation’s mission. Before the delegation had even arrived in Scotland, Green Party member of parliament Robin Harper had introduced a resolution saying:

That the Parliament welcomes to Scotland a delegation of representatives from North America Indian tribal nations and U.S. fishermen’s and environmental organizations; recognizes their request to obtain justice from the Scottish-based multi-national ScottishPower; backs their campaign to oblige ScottishPower to establish the highest environmental standards in its operation in North America; regards the damage done by dams now owned by ScottishPower on the River Klamath in California and Oregon, which have blocked 350 miles of historic salmon spawning grounds, as unacceptable; recognizes that this damage has had a serious and detrimental impact on the native peoples’ social, cultural and economic situations; regards ScottishPower’s failure to include salmon restoration strategies in its future plans as a failure, and calls on ScottishPower to lead the way in taking active measures to reverse the decline in salmon numbers in what was once America’s third greatest salmon river.

In Edinburgh, the delegation met with Ian Russell, CEO of ScottishPower, for several hours. He promised to "seriously work towards a negotiated solution involving fish passage." However, PacificCorp’s final relicensing application included "economic mitigation" for the loss of the salmon, rather than any attempt at dam or operations modification. But the tribes are not going to go away.

What’s more, the dialogue sparked by their visit points toward a shift in how society considers the ecosystems on which it depends. Recent polls throughout what Ecotrust terms "Salmon Nation" show that 80 percent of people support restoration of salmon runs, even if it means changing how they get their water and electricity.


One of the most interesting tactics employed by the delegation was to highlight the common ground the Scottish people share with the tribes: both value salmon immensely and have fought for their own sovereignty against occupying colonizers. In a report on her trip, Hill describes the massive outpourings ofgoodwill from ordinary Scottish citizens. She says that a shareholder leaving the meeting after hearing tribal members’ testimony told her, "I was shattered when I learned what has happened to you." If the four tribes succeed in removing the four massive, functioning hydroelectric dams, their victory will be three-fold: First, they will win international affirmation of their status as sovereign nations and a stronger case for legal recognition of the priority of the tribe-salmon relationship. Second, they will destroy the largest physical obstacles to the restoration of healthy salmon runs to the Klamath system, leading to an increase in the physical and economic health of the tribes and other salmon-dependent communitites.

Finally, the dams’ removal will set a precedent for pulling other large dams off rivers nationwide — particularly on the Snake, where the Boldt decision has laid the legal groundwork for restoring treaty rights to the Columbia basin’s salmon-fishing tribes. Even while the dams still stand, the tribes and their allies have forged important alliances. Ordinary people who are separated by oceans and cultural barriers share common cause in their fight for sovereignty and traditional livelihood. The tribal delegates to Scotland and the Scottish people who welcomed them recognized in one another two cultures whose values had in part formed around long interdependence with the plants and animals in their respective regions. They found a new kinship through the salmon that swim thousands of ocean miles to return to the shores of their different homelands. This sense of kinship with and responsibility for the nonhumans who share their watersheds is increasingly felt by nonindigenous people in the salmon territories and around the world. The Klamath River delegation’s work shows that alliances based on common values can challenge governments and corporations when they lay waste to wild lands, and can cooperate to restore the watersheds that sustain us all.