There is a certain sad irony and a diplomatic dollop of anger in the voices of Pacific Northwest tribal leaders when they speak of their ancestors’ stewardship of natural resources and how thoroughly European-Americans have botched the job.

Remorseless change is a theme that stretches back at least to Chief Seattle’s famous (and possibly fictitious) oration of 1854.

But there now is a renewed urgency to Native American warnings that habitat is on a dangerous downward spiral. Billy Frank Jr., famously eloquent chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC), says “We need a change. We’re on a course that’s going down. If we don’t turn it around, there’s not going to be anything left. ... We have to turn it around.”

Frank’s worries specifically pertain to Western Washington, but the conditions that trouble him and others are widespread throughout our region.

As described in an Associated Press story, “Despite millions of dollars spent on salmon recovery efforts in the region, steelhead and salmon such as the Puget Sound chinook continue to struggle. Development, logging, loss of wetlands and floodplains, overfishing, pollution, bulkheads along shorelines, increased human activity and multiple other factors have contributed to their decline.”

There are certainly differences between Washington and Oregon when it comes to development laws. Puget Sound’s sprawling subdivisions are distinctly more aggressive than those in Oregon around Portland. It’s questionable, however, whether these distinctions make a genuine difference in the long-term prospects for salmon recovery and the entire web of life that rely on them.

“The fundamental problem is that we’re losing habitat faster than we can restore it,” according to NWIFC’s executive director. “The tribes’ treaty rights, the basis of their economy, culture and way of life are at stake.”

All this might only be dismissed as more Indian bellyaching about days gone by, but the fact is that threats to tribal treaty fishing rights can now be powerfully addressed by litigation.

For now, the NWIFC and tribes it represents appear to be making a strong case in the court of public opinion. But the Obama administration, Congress and the states face serious liability if the U.S. continues to practice status-quo malpractice in meeting treaty obligations to tribes and moral obligations to the environment.

The consequences of inaction could be dramatically bad if a tribal lawsuit forces wholesale changes in everything from recreational fishing seasons to farming practices. We must do better.

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