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Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe files 3rd lawsuit over Seattle City Light's dams

The Skagit Valley Tribe is evoking a legal strategy that's gaining international traction: recognizing the rights of nature, such as those of salmon species.

SEATTLE — The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, based in the North Cascades’ community of Darrington, has filed its third lawsuit against the city of Seattle over the operations of City Light’s hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River.

The latest legal action is based on laws of nature, the tribal and indigenous peoples’ centuries-old belief system and “customary law” rooted in the concept that nature can’t be owned and has rights of its own. In this case, the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe asserts the city’s dams harm salmon by cutting off access to miles of habitat. Salmon, according to the tribe, are akin to family members and are part of their worldview, and as such have rights that the tribe is responsible to protect.

“(Salmon have the right) to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve,” wrote Sauk-Suiattle general council Jack Fiander in the complaint. “(City Light) is collectively and intentionally engaged in a pattern and practice of impermissibly infringing on and circumventing rights (of the tribe and salmon) expressly protected under Law.”

“I think it’s time for society and courts to consider not only treating those things that are actually beings as property. They are living beings,” Fiander said. “The fish are practically like part of the tribe. They’re part of the nature. They’re part of the whole world view of the tribe.”

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Seattle’s dams are up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In the years-long process so far, the Sauk-Suiattle and Upper Skagit Indian Tribes, as well as government regulators, Skagit County government and environmental non-profits have criticized City Light’s reluctance to admit their dams hurt salmon, including species headed toward extinction.

The Skagit Project is one of the only hydroelectric facilities in the Pacific Northwest that does not include infrastructure known as fish passage. That means salmon and other species of fish have no way to reach above or below the massive dams.

“By blocking their passage (at the dams) and access to habitat, (the salmon) are like the Native Americans who can’t access their tribal homelands. They want to go home. That’s why they migrate upstream. They’re being denied that,” Fiander said.

Data provided by tribes and the state of Washington show stark declines in salmon populations on the Skagit River over the last 20 years. The Sauk-Suiattle and Upper Skagit Indian Tribes assert that their treaty rights to fish are threatened by the dams, as they have historically been.

Seattle City Light’s top executive said the city is committed to working with the tribe to resolve differences and to help struggling salmon populations.

“City Light is in the process of reviewing the lawsuit filed by the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe in tribal court and cannot comment on the specific claims raised at this time. However, we value our long-standing relationship with the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and continue to work closely with the Sauk-Suiattle and other Tribes on many issues related to hydropower operations, including protecting and strengthening fish populations,” wrote City Light CEO and General Manager Debra Smith in a statement to KING 5. “When the hydropower project received its…license in 1995, the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe signed a settlement agreeing that the license we are currently operating under provided adequate fish protection.”

Natural Law International Movement

Environmental law experts said the Sauk’s lawsuit is part of a growing international movement to recognize natural laws.

“I think what we’re seeing now is a last-gasp desperation of ‘what kind of legal system do we need to build to actually protect this planet of ours?’” said Thomas Linzey, senior counsel for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, based in Spokane. “We wouldn’t be talking about any of this if our existing environmental legal system was actually functioning. And it’s not.”

RELATED: Seattle City Light creates $2.5 million fund to improve fish habitat on Skagit River

Linzey represents the Chippewa Tribe in a similar lawsuit filed last year against the state of Minnesota. In the complaint, the tribe accused the state of improperly issuing a water permit that threatens the rights of wild rice, which is the cultural center of the Chippewa. In this case, the Chippewa allege the permit granted to Enbridge for the Line 3 Pipeline threatens the wild rice's rights.

Environmental law experts liken the rights of the laws of nature to those granted to other non-human entities such as ships that have rights under Maritime Law. Corporations in western law have rights as well.

“It’s a worldwide movement at this point that’s beginning to gain ground,” Linzey said.

In 2006, a small town in Pennsylvania was the first entity in the world to successfully pass a "rights of nature" law, which recognized the waterways in the municipality had the right to exist and evolve. Three dozen cities, including Pittsburgh, have passed laws in response to similar harm threatening ecosystems.

Six Native American Tribes have also passed laws recognizing the rights of ecosystems.

In western law, the rights of nature can be traced back to 1972 when a member of the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the idea. But indigenous peoples have embraced and considered the concept for centuries.

“Tribes, indigenous peoples for thousands of years have believed that nature can’t be owned, that it needs protection in its own right but not through ownership,” Linzey said.

The Sauk-Suiattle said this third lawsuit filed against Seattle should send a message that they’re not giving up.

“The Sauk-Suiattle is not going to just pack up and go away. We’re not going away,” Fiander said. “We are going to be a problem (for Seattle) until they address the issues resulting from the dams."

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