Nora Mead Brownell, one of the three current commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), visited the White Salmon area last Thursday.
On her tour list was a stop at Condit Dam on the White Salmon River. The dam's proposed 2006 removal remains the subject of local controversy, and the FERC commissioners, who decide whether to grant or deny licensing for hydro-electric facilities, will have a major say about what happens to Condit Dam.
However, Brownell's visit was geared more toward understanding the general issues involved rather than specifics about Condit Dam and its fate.
Brownell met with several tribal leaders, including representatives from the Yakama Nation, Umatilla Tribe, and the Warm Springs Tribe, as well as representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The trip was hosted by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission (CRITFC), and arranged by Don Sampson, CRITFC's executive director. Sampson recently called Brownell and invited her to visit the area.
"It was more of a cultural, educational trip for her," explained Jonathan Modie, spokesperson for CRITFC in Portland. "She wanted to fully understand the cultural, historic, and environmental value of the land to the tribes in the general area of the river, and wanted to hear what the tribes had to say about how some of the dam projects are impacting areas where they have traditionally hunted and fished."
The group met last Thursday morning at the in-lieu fishing site at the confluence of the White Salmon River with the Columbia River, and from there drove up to Condit Dam. The group visited the dam and its powerhouse, and later traveled to Celilo, a tribal village across the river from Wishram.
According to Modie, Brownell's visit was the first time in many years a FERC commissioner has been to the Northwest on official business. He added that Brownell revealed nothing about the specifics of the pending Condit Dam decision.
One of the tribal leaders in the tour group said he was more hopeful after Brownell's visit.
"We explained a lot about the cultural impact of salmon, water, and the way tribes view the resource. We tried to get that point across -- the importance of salmon and water," said Harold Blackwolf, Sr., of Warm Springs, Ore. "We were explaining about our traditions and the reasons for our ceremonies, and the cultural and spiritual side of the resource."
Blackwolf, who said Brownell visited with tribal members over a four-day period, added that he took a liking to her.
"She seems to have a really kind heart," he said. "She is a grand lady. It's really positive she was here."
Modie described Brownell as concerned about the fact that the Columbia River Basin has to sustain multiple uses and users, and not solely the needs of the tribes.
"She is worried about the multiple uses being sustained, and at some point, the commission will have to prioritize uses," Modie said. "But from the tribes' perspective, this was a chance to educate members of the commission, to allow FERC to better prioritize the multi-use umbrella."
Blackwolf, who is chair of the Fish & Wildlife Committee of the Warm Springs Tribe, claimed there would be benefits for everyone, not only for the tribes, if Condit Dam is removed and thousands of sockeye and chinook salmon could once again come up the White Salmon River.
"We're all in this together and need to do what's best for the resource," he said.
Modie pointed out that the tribal members were gratified by Brownell's visit.
"The tribes are always eager to show off what they do, which is protection of the watershed," Modie explained. "The tribes are looking forward to getting salmon finally again into the upper reaches of the White Salmon River."
Modie added that Brownell's visit included a boat tour of a portion of the Hanford Reach. Modie said Brownell "was appalled" to see a large number of sub-yearling salmon entrapped in shallow pools because the river level was down.
Modie warned that if more water was not released by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Grant County Public Utility District, thousands of fish could die.
"Think Klamath Basin times 10," Modie said.
Brownell could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson in her Washington, D.C., office said Brownell was continuing her tour in Idaho.