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Portland General Electric moves to condemn property at Willamette Falls, intensifying tribal dispute

Portland General Electric says about five acres of land at the base of Willamette Falls are part of the utility’s hydroelectric project and should not be controlled by the state of Oregon.

Ian McCluskey / OPB

Portland General Electric took legal action Friday against the state of Oregon to condemn a piece of property alongside Willamette Falls that is critical to tribal fishing access.

The move, together with a notice of condemnation, could allow the utility to control access to roughly five acres of land at the base of the falls, exacerbating tensions between Northwest tribes with ties to the landmark.

PGE has been mired in an ongoing dispute over who has authority over the property where the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde have permission from the state to operate a fishing platform.

Officials with PGE said the utility has spent three years trying to resolve the property dispute with the Oregon Department of State Lands, which granted a permit to the Grand Ronde on land that the utility argues is part of its licensed hydroelectric project at the falls.

Other tribes have said the state’s decision to grant permission to the Grand Ronde interferes with their treaty fishing rights at the falls.

In response to PGE’s filing, Sara Thompson, communications director for the Grand Ronde tribes, issued a statement accusing the utility of trying to “steal one of Oregon’s gems from the public trust” to protect its “business relationships” with other tribes.

“PGE’s only concern is protecting their business relationships with these tribes at the expense of Grand Ronde’s ability to exercise a legally authorized ceremonial fishery from a temporary platform at Willamette Falls,” Thompson said. “They are trying to circumvent a state process under a false narrative surrounding ‘safety’ and their claims that they have made every reasonable attempt to resolve this issue is simply not true.”

Dave Robertson, PGE’s vice president of public affairs, said the utility is moving to condemn the property because that’s “the best legal tool available to expediently resolve issues essential to our operations.”

In a statement, he said the utility wants to ensure “safe and equitable” access for all of the tribes that have historically fished in the area while maintaining its obligations under the license it has from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the dam at the site.

“No matter the outcome, PGE recognizes the area’s immense importance to Northwest tribes,” Roberson said.

The utility said, as part of a federal process to relicense the dam, five tribes with treaty-based fishing rights entered an agreement in 2005 to access the falls for cultural activities through PGE property.

But in later years, the state of Oregon issued a permit that put the property’s ownership in question.

Robertson said the land where the state permitted the Grand Ronde tribes to build scaffolding and catch 15 fish a year for ceremonial use is “essential to safe and secure operations of our hydroelectric plant.”

He said the utility tried to resolve the dispute through administrative processes, mediation and attempts to buy the state’s claimed interest in the property, but “a recent ruling from the administrative law judge did not resolve the dispute and made clear the long road ahead to final resolution.”

Delores Pigsley, who chairs the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians Tribal Council, said in a statement that the state of Oregon and the Grand Ronde tribes “bypassed” the process five tribes had agreed to in 2005, which allowed all of the tribes to have cultural access to the falls.

“By circumventing that process and taking actions that caused this current property dispute, certain parties have infringed on the rights of other tribes, including Siletz, who should have equal access to Willamette Falls,” Pigsley said.

Delano Saluskin, chairman of the tribal council for Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, said his tribes support PGE.

“PGE’s need to safely operate and maintain the area within the boundaries of its federally licensed power plant is unassailable,” he said in a statement.

Ray Tsumpti, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said PGE has worked “in good faith” to resolve the property dispute and “unfortunately, the Grand Ronde tribes stepped away from those discussions some time ago.”

Tsumpti said the Grand Ronde blocked a proposal supported by other tribes, PGE and the state to start a new round of talks to resolve the ownership dispute.

“We support PGE’s action to move forward now, secure its property and its ongoing efforts to facilitate a safe and equitable way for all tribes to have everlasting access to the site,” he said.

The Warm Springs tribes co-own the Pelton Round Butte Dam with PGE in Central Oregon.

When asked about the utility’s business relationships with other tribes, PGE spokesperson Andrea Platt said the condemnation filing “is wholly focused on keeping people safe within our FERC license boundary at Willamette Falls, complying with our license obligations in an area that is tremendously dangerous and facilitating access to the falls for all federally recognized Northwest tribes who have a long connection and history of cultural practices and ceremonies at Willamette Falls.”

The Grand Ronde tribes purchased the Blue Heron Mill site alongside Willamette Falls in 2019 and recently started demolishing the old paper mill with plans to redevelop the property.

Last month, they withdrew from a partnership with other tribes and the government agencies that are working to build a river walk and restore public access to Willamette Falls in Oregon City.