In the latest chapter of decades-long litigation over the treaty rights of Washington's Native American tribes, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington recently ordered three Washington state agencies to remove culverts from state-managed roads that block access to salmon spawning habitat. (U.S. v. Washington, No. CV 70-9213 (issued March 29, 2013)). The order requires culvert replacement to be completed by the fall of 2016 on state recreational lands, and by 2030 on highways administered by the Washington State Department of Transportation ("WSDOT").
The litigation has roots dating all the way back to Washington's earliest days as a U.S. territory. Among other duties, Isaac Stevens, Washington's first territorial governor, entered a series of treaties with Washington's Native American tribes. In return for ceding large amounts of land, the Stevens treaties provided: "The right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the Territory." More than a century later, this language became the linchpin of the U.S. District Court's foundational 1974 opinion, United States v. Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D. Wash. 1974), which held that the Stevens treaties entitled the tribes to fifty percent of the state's "harvestable" fish. Often called the "Boldt Decision," after its author, the late District Judge George Boldt, the decision was the culmination of a political movement, complete with civil disobediance, celebrity "fish-ins, and sometimes violent clashes. The decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and largely upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The practical result of the decision is that Washington's tribes have become "co-managers" of the state's fishery resources.