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Originally published August 10, 2012 at 9:00 PM | Page modified August 13, 2012 at 4:47 PM

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Elwha Tribe still waiting for money Congress promised

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe wants the United States to make good on its promises made in the Elwha Act of 1992, a settlement agreement not yet fulfilled.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Tucked in the bill to restore the Elwha River ecosystem was $4 million intended to also help the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

The Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1992, was more than a bill calling for restoration of the river. It also was a settlement, intended to satisfy the needs of the tribe, the dams' owner, the city of Port Angeles and a local pulp-and-paper mill that got power from the dams.

But while other parties to the settlement all have been satisfied, the tribe is still waiting. And some of the original negotiators of the Elwha Act say they still want the law's promise to the tribe fulfilled.

In a letter to Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar written in March, former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, an original co-sponsor of the Elwha Act, stressed that the payment to the tribe was an important part of the balance of justice the settlement sought to strike.

"We knew, when we negotiated the settlement, that we could not make up for every loss," Bradley wrote. "But we did envision a generous settlement with the tribe and we did not consider removal of the dams and restoration of the fisheries to be, by themselves, commensurate with the fulfillment of the nation's obligation to the tribe.

"There was to be more, and we saw land and economic-development funds as key parts of that additional responsibility. It would be a wonderful thing if, on the same day we declare the dams to be gone, we could also say that the law worked equally well to cause the United States to meet its settlement obligations with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe."

The $325 million federal restoration project enabled by the act is well under way, with one dam already out of the river, and the other to be gone by next May. The former owner of the Port Angeles mill that took its power from the dams received replacement power to stay in business, and U.S. taxpayers paid $30 million for the dams to their owner.

Industrial and residential water users in Port Angeles also have received elaborate new water-quality infrastructure — at more than $163 million in taxpayers' expense — to ensure dam removal on the Elwha River doesn't degrade their water supply.

The ecological recovery of the Elwha watershed also is starting to take hold: The first wild steelhead has made it back to the river, and a revegetation plan for the former lake beds is under way.

But the tribe has been waiting so long for the $4 million authorized in the law that it today is seeking a congressional appropriation of $15 million for equivalent buying power to meet the intent of the law, which was to help the tribe buy land for housing and economic development.

But whether the tribe will get even the $4 million originally promised is far from clear.

The tribe is pressing for an appropriation from Congress before U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, retires at the end of the year after 36 years in office. A longtime champion of the tribe and the Elwha, Dicks is the natural go-to.

But he also faces the reality that implementing the Elwha Act took a lot longer, and cost a lot more, than anyone anticipated in 1992.

It took Dicks, who led the effort, 14 separate appropriations bills through four administrations — and finally, federal stimulus dollars — to pay for the project.

In the end, building infrastructure for water-quality protection swallowed more than half the total eventual spending on the Elwha Act. It swamped the $113 million original cost estimate for the Elwha restoration and was by far the single most expensive element of the project. By contrast, dam removal cost $35 million. Ecosystem restoration, including revegetation, fish recovery and scientific monitoring, cost even less at $26 million.

Also built was a new $16 million hatchery for the tribe, to replace a hatchery rendered inoperable by the dam-removal project.

A combination of factors led to the escalation in the Elwha project's total cost to nearly triple the initial estimates. The estimates were always moving targets, and inflation pumped up the cost of a project that ultimately stretched out over more than 20 years. There were complicating developments as the project dragged on, including the listing of four threatened species in the river. And most of all, there was the task of fleshing out the law's general requirements, such as maintaining water quality, through extended negotiations with project partners such as the city of Port Angeles that were under no obligation to share costs.

Lower Elwha Klallam leaders say none of it was their doing, and that the tribe shouldn't be punished for so much time going by, or for expensive demands by other parties to the settlement.

But George Behan, administrative assistant to Dicks, today makes no promises.

"A lot of things are authorized in this country that are never appropriated," Behan said. "And lots of things happened that weren't intended in that legislation, like the hatchery, and the new water system, and a lot of other things that came up that were unanticipated in 1992, when there was another congressman in the district, and another senator, and a lot of other things."

Eli Zupnick, spokesman for Washington's senior senator, Patty Murray, said Murray is open to pursuing a path for funding for the tribe, but how much or what that might look like is still in the works. Possibilities include working with the National Park Service to include the funding in that agency's budget, Zupnick said.

The tribe is not giving up on the settlement promised in the law, said Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

"Everyone else got what they wanted," Charles said. "But we are still the last ones at the bottom of the totem pole."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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