Court Grants Grand Ronde Standing in Dispute Over Condemnation at Willamette Falls

There’s a lot of history bound up in the battle over 5 acres and a tribal fishing platform.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon granted the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde’s motion to intervene in a case involving Portland General Electric’s proposed condemnation of 5 acres of state land adjacent to Willamette Falls.

In his July 7 ruling, Simon determined that the Grand Ronde tribe has a legitimate interest in the case because it holds a license from the Department of State Lands to engage in ceremonial fishing from a platform it erected on the land at considerable expense. The tribe has also used the land to harvest lamprey from the Willamette for more than two decades.

There’s a lot more going on at the falls than a simple dispute over land.

In 2016, the Grand Ronde got permission from the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to catch a limited number of salmon and steelhead near Willamette Falls for ceremonial purposes. Then, in 2018, the tribe got a permit (technically called a “registration”) from the Oregon Department of State Lands to build a fishing platform on 5 acres the state owns near the falls. The Grand Ronde obtained the permit over the vociferous objections of the Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes.

Willamette Falls holds a sacred place for Oregon’s tribes, and there is no agreement who has priority for its use.

Related: Three Oregon Tribes Are Locked in a Dispute Over Fishing at Willamette Falls. It’s About Much More Than a Few Salmon.

Representatives of both the Warm Springs and the Umatilla, whose reservations are east of the Cascades, objected to the Grand Ronde (which operates the state’s largest casino, near Sheridan) claiming a fishing right at the falls. Over the formal objection of both tribes, the state greenlighted the Grand Ronde’s fishing platform and gave the tribe a permit through 2023.

“Every time they gain back some sort of recognition—like getting permission from the state for this platform—it creates a reality that they have certain rights,” Louie Pitt, Warm Springs’ director of government relations, told WW in 2018. “They have a bigger agenda and a sizable war chest.”

The Grand Ronde used part of its war chest in 2019 to purchase the 23-acre site of the shuttered Blue Heron paper mill on the east bank of the Willamette just below Willamette Falls. That investment cemented the tribe’s presence at the falls.

Then, in April of this year, PGE filed a lawsuit seeking to condemn the 5 acres of state land that the Grand Ronde uses for fishing. Other tribes, including the Warm Springs, which is PGE’s partner in the Pelton Butte Dam on the Deschutes River, applauded the filing.

The utility, which has operated a federally licensed hydroelectric dam at Willamette Falls since 1960, said it was seeking to take the state’s land for safety purposes.

“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,” PGE vice president Dave Robertson said in a statement at the time. “This permit allowed a fishing platform to be placed on property at the base of Willamette Falls in an area that is essential to safe and secure operations of our hydroelectric plant.”

In its argument to intervene in the case, the Grand Ronde noted PGE had operated its dam for more than 60 years without citing a need to condemn the state’s land and had renewed its federal licensure as recently as 2005 without citing any need for the property.

Judge Simon found the tribe’s argument convincing. “The tribe meets all four requirements for intervention,” he wrote in his July 7 opinion.

The case will now proceed in U.S. District Court in Portland.