By White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland

President Biden recognizes that to confront injustice, we must be honest about history – even when doing so is difficult.

In the Pacific Northwest, an open and candid conversation about the history and legacy of the federal government’s management of the Columbia River is long overdue. Federal dams in the Columbia River Basin have long delivered – and continue to deliver – renewable energy and many other benefits. But they have also inflicted – and continue to inflict – grave harms on Tribal communities.  

Over the past three years, the Biden-Harris Administration has worked with states, Tribes, communities, and stakeholders to develop and launch a historic partnership that aims to restore wild fish populations in the Columbia River Basin, honor the United States’ obligations to Tribal Nations, and develop a long-term strategy to meet the clean energy, transportation, and other key needs of the region.

The agreement does not commit to removing any existing federal dams; only an act of Congress could require dams to be breached. But our Administration – as reflected in a Presidential Memorandum from President Biden – has committed to developing the information that is needed for federal, regional, state, and Tribal leaders to develop a long-term plan for the Columbia River Basin and its dams.

A key element of this effort is reflected in a landmark report that the Department of the Interior released today, which outlines the historic, ongoing, and cumulative damage and injustices that the federal dams on the Columbia River have caused and continue to cause to Tribal Nations.

This history has often been overlooked or ignored. The reality – which is, for the first time, now detailed by the U.S. government in a formal analysis – is that the construction, existence, and operation of federal dams on the Columbia River has led to the devastation of Tribal villages and homesites; destruction and disruption of cultural resources and sacred sites; and has impaired Tribal lands, fisheries, economies, and livelihoods. The Department’s report elevates Tribal perspectives, which the federal government has historically downplayed.

During a formal consultation with Tribal Nations in the Spring of 2022, Tribal leaders emphasized the importance of the U.S. government officially recognizing this painful history.   Tribal leaders talked about the interdependence of the Tribal Nations who have lived in the Columbia River Basin since time immemorial with the salmon, steelhead, and other native fish; about the treaties Tribes signed with the United States that guaranteed them a right to continue to fish at all of their traditional places; and about the cultural, physical, economic, and spiritual harm the Tribes have suffered as wild fish populations have dwindled, some disappearing entirely and others designated as threatened or endangered. 

At that time, we promised to continue to listen to Tribal voices, and to seek to build a partnership with Tribes, states, and stakeholders to rebuild wild fish populations, advance a clean energy future, and support communities that depend on the river and the services provided by its dams.

The Department of the Interior’s report is an important step forward, documenting the lived experiences of some of the Tribes most directly affected by the federal dams. This includes the trauma of communities forever forcibly further divided; Tribal fishing grounds and ceremonial and sacred sites permanently inundated; and unmitigated damage to the ecosystem that Tribes had long stewarded, and that had in turn supported their way of life. It recognizes the damage caused by blocking anadromous fish returns to Tribal reserved lands for nearly a century, which undermined food sovereignty and security. The government’s actions transferred wealth and abundance from the Tribes, all over the vociferous objection of Tribal peoples.

We are deeply grateful to the Indigenous people who contributed their time and effort to share the stories that are reflected in the report. We are committed to continuing this work together – charting a new path forward, in partnership with Tribes and states in the region, for the restoration of wild salmon, steelhead, and other native fish while safeguarding and strengthening sustainable energy, agriculture, and water resources.

By facing the past and present with transparency, together we can – and we must – build a stronger, more just, and more resilient future.

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