Habitat is the key to salmon recovery, but ongoing loss and damage of salmon habitat is driving down salmon populations across western Washington and threatening tribal treaty rights. No matter how well we manage harvest and hatcheries, if there is no habitat, both the salmon and our treaty-reserved rights are lost.

Unfortunately, the state of Washington continues to ignore its obligation to enforce one of the first laws on its books that requires fish passage at culverts under roads. The state has been ignoring that obligation for more than 100 years. Today, hundreds of state-owned culverts block fish passage throughout western Washington. Meanwhile, the state has been unwilling to hold its own agencies accountable, refusing to enforce its own environmental laws.

The problem got so bad that the tribes were forced to ask the federal courts to step in. Almost five years ago, a federal judge issued a summary judgment saying that our treaty-reserved fishing rights prohibit the state of Washington from allowing fish-blocking culverts under its roads.

State agencies told the Legislature back in 1995 that fixing culverts was one of the most cost-effective strategies for restoring salmon habitat. The cost and benefit ratio, they said, increases right along with the number of culverts repaired per year increases.” In 1997 state agencies estimated that every dollar spent fixing culverts would generate four dollars worth of additional salmon production. Recent studies support the state’s findings.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since the court ruled in favor of the tribes and our treaty rights. While the Department of Natural Resources appears to be taking its responsibility seriously, the same cannot be said of the Department of Transportation. DOT’s lack of commitment to fish-blocking culverts – and obeying state laws – hasn’t changed.

Before the 2007 summary judgment, DOT was correcting about ten culverts per year – three using funds appropriated just for culvert fixes, and seven more as part of highway projects. Since the court’s ruling DOT is still only correcting about three culverts per year with its dedicated culvert funding, but has actually decreased the number of repaired culverts to eight per year.

DOT can’t make the excuse that increasing funding to fix culverts will affect state general fund programs such as education. DOT uses only funds from the state transportation budget for fixing culverts, and that budget is separate from the general fund. Clearly, DOT doesn’t feel that it must respect the court’s ruling that it is violating the treaty-reserved rights of the tribes.

There are still 930 more culverts for DOT to fix. At this rate, it will take more than a century to repair only the culverts that are currently blocking fish from many miles of available habitat. All the while, more culverts will fail and block salmon.

It’s this same failure to address habitat that got us in this situation to begin with. The state will not enforce its own laws or respect the treaty rights of tribes, and there is no accountability. All of us, both Indian and non-Indian, are losing hundreds of thousands of salmon for every year that DOT fails to fix its fish-blocking culverts. The state needs to stand up to its obligation to the salmon, the tribes, and everyone else in this state and fix those culverts.

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

For more information, contact: Tony Meyer or Emmett O’Connell, (360) 438-1181.