Portland General Electric on Friday took legal action against the state to condemn a piece of property alongside Willamette Falls that is critical to tribal fishing access and holds cultural and spiritual significance for native tribes.
The move, together with a notice of condemnation, could allow the utility to control roughly five acres of land at the base of the falls, exacerbating tensions between Northwest tribes with ties to the landmark.
The land beside Willamette Falls has become a point of contention for the power company, Department of State Lands and tribal groups in recent years. PGE, which owns property on the West Linn side of the river and operates its hydroelectric power project at the falls, filed to condemn the land April 8 in federal court.
Four tribal groups — the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — expressed support for PGE’s move, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde did not.
The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde built a fishing platform on the contested land in 2018, and also owns and is in the process of redeveloping the former Blue Heron paper mill property located on the Oregon City side of the falls.
“These proposed condemnation actions at Willamette Falls are nothing more than PGE trying to steal one of Oregon’s gems from the public trust,” Grand Ronde Communications Director Sara Thompson said in a statement to The Oregonian.
“PGE’s only concern is protecting their business relationships with these tribes at the expense of Grand Ronde’s ability to exercise a legally authorized ceremonial fishery from a temporary platform at Willamette Falls.”
Thompson claimed the utility is “trying to circumvent a state process under a false narrative surrounding ‘safety’ and their claims that they have made every reasonable attempt to resolve this issue is simply not true. Oregon’s natural wonders belong to all Oregonians, not industry, and not PGE.”
Dave Robertson, PGE’s vice president of public affairs, said the utility is moving to condemn the property because that’s “the best legal tool available to expediently resolve issues essential to our operations.”
“For over three years, PGE tried all means reasonable to resolve a dispute about a permit issued by the Oregon Department of State Lands to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde,” he said. “We have worked through the administrative law process, judicially assisted mediation and attempts to purchase the state’s claimed interest.”
In a statement, he said the utility wants to ensure “safe and equitable” access for all of the tribes that have historically fished in the area while maintaining its obligations under the license it has from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the dam at the site.
“No matter the outcome, PGE recognizes the area’s immense importance to Northwest tribes,” Roberson said.
The utility said, as part of a federal process to relicense the dam, five tribes with treaty-based fishing rights entered an agreement in 2005 to access the falls for cultural activities through PGE property.
Several tribal representatives expressed support for PGE’s efforts while echoing their characterization of the dispute — and calling out Grand Ronde for ceasing to collaborate with the other tribes.
“One tribe and Oregon [Department of State Lands] has bypassed this agreed upon process, negatively affecting the Siletz Tribe’s access to Willamette Falls,” said Delores Pigsley, chair of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians Tribal Council.
“By circumventing that process and taking actions that caused this current property dispute, certain parties have infringed on the rights of other tribes, including Siletz, who should have equal access to Willamette Falls. We support PGE’s efforts to restore equal treatment to all affected tribes.”
Chairman Ray Tsumpti, of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said PGE has been a “model of corporate relations with the Warm Springs Tribes and other tribes on issues ranging from habitat restoration and water quality in Oregon rivers to lamprey harvest at Willamette Falls.”
“For the last several years, PGE has worked in good faith to resolve a property dispute that has adversely impacted all tribes who have interests, claims and rights at Willamette Falls,” he said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, the Grand Ronde Tribes stepped away from those discussions some time ago, and it recently blocked a proposal supported by all the other Tribes, PGE and the Department of State lands to engage in new talks to resolve the ownership dispute.”
Chairman Delano Saluskin, of the Tribal Council for Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, added his support to PGE’s actions, saying the utility has spent “extensive time, money, and resources through the administrative law and mediation processes in recent years.”
“PGE’s need to safely operate and maintain the area within the boundaries of its federally licensed power plant is unassailable,” he said. “PGE’s pursuit of a perpetual cultural practices easement recognizes the immense importance of the Willamette Falls to Yakama Nation.
“We look forward to continuing meaningful collaboration to ensure safe access in support of our people’s traditional and cultural practices.”
In the civil complaint, lawyers for PGE asserted its authority to condemn land for the hydroelectric project based on the Federal Power Act — which aimed to coordinate hydroelectric projects in the United States.
PGE argued that though the state does not own the land beside the falls, the Department of State Lands claimed an ownership interest in the site in 2018 when it granted Grand Ronde permission to build its fishing platform.
According to the filing, PGE approached the Department of State Lands in January of this year, offering to acquire all of the department’s claimed rights, titles and interests in the land for $150,000.
“To date, PGE has been unable to contract with Defendant DSL for the acquisition of title to the Property,” the filing stated.
When Grand Ronde erected its fishing platform in 2018, three of the region’s other confederated tribes (Warm Springs, Yakama Nation and Umatilla) appealed the state’s decision granting permission for the platform.
The state rejected the appeal, upholding its approval for Grand Ronde to build the structure, which it has used to catch 15 fish for ceremonial purposes each year since 2018.
In a follow-up email, PGE spokeswoman Andrea Platt described the condemnation filing as “essential to safely and securely operate our hydroelectric project consistent with our FERC license obligations.”
“This action is simply the last available legal tool to timely resolve an issue related to a permit that the Department of State Lands granted on that property,” she said, “after more than three years of fruitless attempts to resolve the issues in other, more collaborative ways to benefit of both the state and PGE.”
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