To ship coal from the Powder River Basin to China, you have to go through the heart of the Lummi Nation
By Jeff Galbraith
The bay is a dull pewter sheet, water and sky beautifully indistinguishable. Cormorants, gulls, and scoters glide and dip, slurping ooligan, crustaceans, and the occasional herring. Harbor seals surface and stare. Ospreys eye the shallows for flopping pink salmon. An autumn sun warms the saltchuck—the cobbled intertidal zone—and the shoreline forests of alder, fir, and madrone.
The coho are running, chasing the scent of their natal creeks. Below them, waves of eelgrass undulate, reflecting and breaking the sunlight into a shadowy marine veld. A few bits of herring roe manage to cling to the gentle strands, the last hopes of a once-great fishery.
As the mist begins to lift and the dividing line between water and atmosphere becomes visible, a hulking, 300-foot tanker looms at Cherry Point, already the site of extensive industrial facilities and shipping terminals. A proposed new deepwater port here to export U.S. coal to China would doom any hope for reviving the Lummi Nation's traditional fishery.
In this far northwestern corner between Bellingham, the North Cascades, and Vancouver, British Columbia, fishing for salmon and herring supports a rich local culture, as it has for millennia. For the Lummi Nation, a community that has existed at Cherry Point for 175 generations, the annual migrations of sockeye, coho, chinook, pink, and chum salmon to the Nooksack River are their literal and spiritual connection to the earth. It would be hard to overstate their importance to a society that has developed what is still the most sustainable fishery on the West Coast.
"They would work three months and celebrate for nine," Jewell James, a prominent Lummi Nation member and master totem carver, says of his ancestors at the 3,500-year-old fishery. "Every fisherman was required to provide not just for his family, but to keep fishing until there was enough for all. No one ever went hungry."
"The waterfowl would be so thick at times, the sky would be black. And there would be people fishing."
If a visitor could travel back 500 years, a good deal of the scene at Cherry Point (Xwe'chieXen in the Lummi language) would be recognizable. The ospreys, harbor seals, and gulls would be feasting. The eelgrass would filter the sunlight, and the salmon would be returning. But there would also be some major omissions.
"Well, there'd be no Arco or Intalco," James says, noting the massive aluminum smelter and oil refinery now situated on his ancestors' traditional grounds. "The forest would be different—big cedar and firs all the way down to the water." Today, scrubby primary alder forests dotted with cottonwood and small firs creep to the shoreline. "The waterfowl would be so thick at times, the sky would be black. And there would be people fishing." Xwe'chieXen, he says, was a primary site for ceremonies celebrating the "first salmon," a staple of traditional culture throughout the Salish Sea region.
Today, massive ships arriving at existing industrial facilities at Cherry Point continually drag thousands of dollars of Lummi crabbing gear to destruction. Shipping lanes reduce and clog the fishing ground. Just to the north, at the mouth of British Columbia's Fraser River, dust from coal shipments turns net floats as gray as a December afternoon.
In 2011, SSA Marine began filing permit requests to build a new coal export terminal. In addition to the snaking trains carrying crude oil to refineries and the endless conveyor of tankers toting the refined fuel to China and India, the proposed terminal would be capable of shipping 48 million tons of coal per year. Up to 18 additional trains per day—open hoppers loaded with coal stripmined from Wyoming's Powder River basin—would run through the heart of the Lummi Nation. The coal would then be transferred onto vessels three times the length of a football field, shipped over sea lanes that would eat upwards of 20 percent of Lummi fishing grounds, and finally delivered to power plants in Asia, primarily in China.
The Lummi Nation considers a behemoth coal terminal in the middle of this fragile and recovering fishery both a madness and a sacrilege.
While the communities of Bellingham, Ferndale, and Blaine debate the trade-offs between an increase in dockside jobs and the cost of a series of multimillion-dollar rail overpasses (of which Burlington Northern would be obligated to pay no more than 5 percent), the Lummi Business Council has dug in. In the past, tribal opposition to large-scale resource-extraction projects has sometimes been assuaged with fishery offsets or other mitigations. This time, Lummi elders, youngsters, and fishers gathered in September 2012 to protest at Cherry Point with traditional drumming and singing, sending a public message that their fishing grounds were not for sale.
Tribal members underscored that message by ceremonially burning a giant check on the beach at Cherry Point. "The Lummi Nation cannot see how the proposed projects could be developed in a manner that does not amount to a significant impairment on the treaty fishing right and have a negative effect on the Lummi way of life," Lummi Business Council chair Tim Bellew wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers. "These projects would without question result in significant and unavoidable impacts and damage to our treaty rights."
What makes Lummi Nation opposition so serious is a 1974 landmark ruling by Western Washington Federal District Court Judge George H. Boldt: that the 1855 treaty granting the Lummi the right to fish in their "usual and accustomed places" with a take "in common with" non-Indian commercial and recreational fishers actually means what it says. Boldt determined that "in common with" means up to half the harvestable catch. He also held that the treaty gives the tribe a right to co-manage the fishery with state and federal governments—a critical victory. His decision was upheld on appeal to the Ninth Circuit and later largely affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Overnight, tribal fishers—who had previously skirted the edges of their traditional fishing grounds, competing with a far larger non-native fleet—owned half the salmon in Puget Sound and played a role in managing the fishery.
Today, the Lummi Nation isn't interested in giving up any percentage of its salmon runs. Unlike the hordes of college students, kayakers, and recreational fishers wielding NO COAL TRAIN signs at public hearings, it has 40 years of legal precedent and a sovereign contract with the U.S. government backing its claims.
And those claims extend beyond salmon. Boldt's ruling has since been expanded to include several species of fish and shellfish. For Cherry Point and the surrounding areas, this includes butter clams, geoducks, and—crucially to the coal issue—herring. With its deepwater access, eelgrass for sheltering roe, and rich nutrients, Cherry Point was once one of the best herring fisheries on the West Coast. For thousands of years, Lummi villages would net, rake, and feast on the oily fish. By 1979, though, herring stocks had gone into free fall, and the Lummi Nation voluntarily elected to forgo its right to fish for herring in an effort to bring the population back, at an estimated loss to the tribe of more than $100 million since that time. In 2000, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources designated most of the waters around Cherry Point as a marine reserve, in part as a means to preserve herring habitat.
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