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From salmon to food stamps

Four Klamath River dams are set to be dismantled, beginning in 2020, in a colossal effort to save fish species from the brink of extinction and improve water quality. The same river that was once gleaming red with crowds of sockeye salmon venturing upstream to spawn is now littered with thousands of white, decomposing fish carcasses. However, we’ve lost more than salmon in the last century. Klamath tribes have largely lost the ability to feed themselves. Indigenous peoples are caught in an ironic tragedy as they rely on federal food assistance while living in an area that was once one of the most food-rich places in the United States.

For the past 60 years, the dams on the Klamath River have prevented chinook salmon from accessing 90 percent of their historical spawning habitat. The landmark decision to remove four of the five dams is expected to restore fish species’ access to ancient breeding areas in the tributaries of the Klamath. Scientists are cautiously optimistic about the long-term trajectory of fish populations, though progress will be slow at first.

On the surface level, this decision appears to be extremely beneficial to Klamath tribes, whose livelihoods were sustained largely by the once productive salmon runs only a few decades ago. However, focusing solely on the removal of the dams completely disregards the fact that, no matter how successful the project is, the Klamath tribes will garner few benefits given their current land rights.

Indigenous peoples have been stripped of their freedom to access the river that gave life and sustenance to their ancestors. Native Americans sustainably managed the Klamath River for thousands of years; it was the European colonists who initiated both the destruction of the river and the native people.

Europeans commodified the precious forests (as they saw only the value of the timber), caught all the fish to be sold for profit, and dammed the colossal Klamath River. Tribes are no longer entitled to their ancestral fishing practices and all too often face poaching charges for harvesting fish.

Past and current regulations have transformed the Klamath tribes into some of the most food-insecure communities in the Western United States. Future policies regarding the Klamath River must be grounded in the recognition of the Klamath tribes’ right to fish. This will be of increasing importance as we quickly near the destruction of the dams. Our society must embody a greater sense of understanding and respect for the management practices of indigenous peoples, who sustainably managed much of America’s landscapes for thousands of years.

The Environmental Protection Agency has made efforts to address environmental justice issues faced by indigenous peoples. Plan EJ 2014 and 2020 Action Agenda are strategic plans implemented by the EPA that seek to mitigate environmental justice concerns across the United States.

An integral aspect of these plans is the development of partnerships between indigenous tribes and local, state and federal government entities. The expectation is that this will help to involve local communities and stakeholders in the creation of policies and regulations.

Although this may be a good first step, the implementation of these plans have not actually translated into significantly greater interaction between the EPA and stakeholder communities. The Government Accountability Office found that, while Plan EJ 2014 was effective in multiple regards, it was not successful in fully engaging stakeholders. The EPA must prioritize the voices of indigenous peoples if significant progress towards environmental justice is to be made.

The GAO’s report highlights the need for further action and effort on part of the EPA to involve Native American tribal communities. Furthermore, removing the dams on the Klamath River could restore fish populations, but it will not ensure that Klamath Tribes receive their fair share of the benefits. The drastic decline of fish populations, coupled with the obliteration of indigenous land rights, has made the Klamath Native Americans “some of the poorest and hungriest people in the state.” Fixing one of these factors without tending to the other is not only inadequate, but it ensures the perpetuation of the injustices faced by Klamath tribes.

— Carly Paige Miller of Weaverville, California, is a student in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley.