[env-trinity] Washington Post-Karuks Trying to Regain Salmon Fisheries and Their Health

Tom Stokely tstokely at trinityalps.net
Sun Jan 30 20:38:52 PST 2005

  CLICK URL for images: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47525-2005Jan29.html
Tribe Fights Dams to Get Diet Back 
Karuks Trying to Regain Salmon Fisheries and Their Health 
  (Kari's report in Tomorrow's Washington Post)
By Blaine Harden 
Washington Post Staff Writer 
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page A03 

HAPPY CAMP, Calif. -- Centuries before federal nutritional guidelines told 
Americans how to eat healthfully, the Karuk Indians had figured it out. 

They ate wild salmon at every meal -- about 1.2 pounds of fish per person per day. 
Isolated here in the Klamath River valley in the rugged mountains of northwest 
California, the Karuk stuck with their low-carb, low-cholesterol, salmon-centered 
diet longer than perhaps any Indians in the Pacific Northwest. It was not until the 
late 1960s and the 1970s, when dams and irrigation ruined one of the world's 
great salmon fisheries, that fish mostly disappeared from their diet. 

Salmon are now too scarce to catch and too pricey to buy. The tribe caught 100 
chinook salmon last fall, a record low. Eating mostly processed food, some of it 
federal food aid, many Karuks are obese, with unusually high rates of heart disease 
and diabetes. 

"You name them, I got them all," said Harold Tripp, 54, a traditional fisherman for 
the tribe. "I got heart problems. I got the diabetes. I got high cholesterol. I need to 
lose weight." 

On his first day as a fisherman for the tribe in 1966, Tripp remembers catching 
86 salmon. Last fall, he caught one. "I mostly eat hamburger now," he said. 

To reclaim their salmon -- and their health -- the Karuks are using the tribe's 
epidemic of obesity-related illness as a lever in a dam re-licensing pending before 
the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In what legal experts say is an 
unprecedented use of the regulatory process, the tribe is trying to shame a major 
utility company and the federal government into agreeing that at least three 
dams on the Klamath River should be knocked down. 

The dams are quite literally killing Indians, according to a tribe-commissioned 
report that was written by Kari Marie Norgaard, a sociologist from the University 
of California at Davis. The report links the disappearance of salmon to increases in 
poverty, unemployment, suicide and social dissolution. 

"We can't exist without our fish," said Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the Karuk, 
whose 3,300 members make up the second-largest Indian tribe in California. "We 
can only hope that this will be one of those rare instances where a true look at the 
cost and benefits of those dams will be a compelling argument." 

The tribe's demand for nutritional justice presents a prickly new problem to 
federal regulators at a time of major upheaval in the hydropower industry. 

Federal licenses for private dams, valid for 30 to 50 years, are expiring in droves, 
especially in the Northwest, where hydropower accounts for about 80 percent of 
the electricity supply. In the next decade or so, licenses are due to expire at more 
than half of the country's non-federal dams -- 296 projects that provide electricity 
to 30 million homes in 37 states. 

The Karuks "have raised something that is novel, and FERC commissioners will 
have to grapple with it," said Mary Morton, a legal adviser to Nora Mead Brownell, 
one of President Bush's four appointees to the commission that rules on license 
renewals for private dams. 

Politically, it is hardly a propitious moment for Native Americans to demand that 
dams come tumbling down. Power rates have soared in California and across the 
Northwest in recent years. Bush has repeatedly spoken out against the breaching 
of federal dams on the nearby Snake River, saying it would be bad for the 
economy. His appointees as FERC commissioners are considered unlikely to force 
any utility to remove a dam, and his administration recently granted dam owners 
a special right -- denied Indian tribes, environmental groups and local 
governments -- to appeal Interior Department rulings about how dams should be 

Still, the aging dams on the Klamath River are, at best, marginal producers of 
power. They were built without fish ladders (unlike most major dams in the 
Northwest), and there is widespread scientific agreement that their removal 
would revive several salmon runs. 

California, which could block a renewed federal license for the dams under 
provisions of the Clean Water Act, seems decidedly unenthusiastic about keeping 
the dams in the river. The state Energy Commission has said removing them 
"would not have significant impact" on the regional supply of electricity and that 
replacement power is readily available. 

The State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water quality and could 
veto a renewed license, blames warm, sluggish reservoirs behind the dams for 
"horrible" algae blooms in the river, said Russ Kanz, a staff scientist for the board. 

In addition, the National Academy of Science and local officials in Humboldt 
County agree that dam removal is an option that should be examined to bring 
salmon back to the Klamath. 

But PacifiCorp, the company that owns the dams, did not list dam removal as an 
option in its application last year for a new long-term license. 

In the Clinton era, when tribes and environmental groups used the re-licensing 
process to force utilities to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to retool or remove 
dams, PacifiCorp agreed to remove a hydro dam from the White Salmon River in 
Washington state -- at a cost of $20 million. The company, which is owned by 
Scottish Power, has 1.6 million electricity customers in six western states. 

As part of its re-licensing application for dams on the Klamath, PacifiCorp is trying 
to negotiate a separate settlement with the Karuks and other stakeholders along 
the river. Dam removal is now "on the table" in those talks, said Jon Coney, a 
company spokesman, adding that the tribe's health argument is part of the 

Coney, though, said that the tribe's health claims are difficult to substantiate in a 
scientific or legal way. 

"How do you separate the health problems out from all the other societal things 
that have happened to the tribe?" Coney asked. 

To make their case, the Karuk Tribe offers tribal health statistics and stories of its 
people who have grown ill in the years without salmon. 

Diabetes and heart disease were rare among tribal members before World War II. 
Part of the reason was the super-abundance in their salmon-rich diet of omega-3 
fatty acids, which research has linked with reduced risk of heart disease, stroke 
and diabetes. 

"We do know that the nutritional values of subsistence fish are superior to 
processed foods and convenience foods," said William Lambert, an environmental 
epidemiologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. 

With subsistence fish all but gone from the Karuk diet, the percentage of tribal 
members with diabetes has jumped from near zero to about 12 percent, nearly 
twice the national average, according to the tribe. The estimated rate of heart 
disease among tribal members is 40 percent, about triple the national average. 

A number of studies of Native Americans across the United States have shown that 
the loss of traditional foods is directly responsible for increasing rates of 
obesity-related illnesses. 

Steve Burns, a physician for three years in the tribal clinic in Happy Camp, said 
that diabetes and other obesity-related illness are "a huge and growing problem." 

"What is happening to the Karuk people is like something you would read about in 
a book on the destruction of a minority group in the old Soviet Union," he said. 

The change in the tribe's diet in the past generation has been so great that many 
Karuk concede that it will be difficult -- even if the dams are knocked down and 
salmon runs are revived -- for them to return to their traditional healthful diet. 

"Of course, we won't be able to eat salmon all the time like we did," said Ron Reed, a 
traditional fisherman and tribal representative to FERC hearings on the dams. But 
he said everyone in the tribe would eat vastly more than they do now and that 
children would once again be able to grow up with the staple food that has 
traditionally kept the bodies and spirits of the Karuk healthy. 

Last year, because of the record-low catch, tribal elders did not have enough 
salmon for religious ceremonies. So they bought some. 

© 2005 The Washington Post Company 

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