Almost 40 years after starting the process to acquire Kerr Dam, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have almost reached the finish line.
And they’ll get there for a price that is tens of millions of dollars closer to what the tribes said it was worth than what PPL Montana wanted for it, the Missoulian reports.
The Flathead Indian Reservation tribes will become the first in the nation to own a major hydroelectric facility when they turn over $18.3 million. That’s the price set by the American Arbitration Association after weighing arguments from CSKT, which maintained the price should be $14.7 million, and PPL Montana, which said it should be nearly $50 million.
Extensive hearings on the price were held in January.
“This is a historic day for the Confederated Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai Tribes,” CSKT Chairman Ron Trahan said. “We’ve been working toward this for 40 years. It brings tears to my eyes, because it’s something we never quit on.”
The earliest the transfer of ownership can take place is Sept. 5, 2015.
New owners will mean a new name for the dam according to Brian Lipscomb, CEO of Energy Keepers, a federally chartered corporation wholly owned by the tribes. Completed in 1938, the dam was named after Frank Kerr, president of Montana Power Company at the time.
“We’ve been titled as visionary people, and it plays out,” council member Lloyd Irvine said at a press conference announcing the price. Acquisition of the dam “is one of the tools that ensures the future of our people.”
But another council member, Terry Pitts, urged caution.
“We should not be blinded by the bling,” Pitts said. “There will be a lot of issues that come with this. We need to be fully prepared.”
Most of the people who run Kerr Dam on northwest Montana’s Flathead Reservation sit hundreds of miles away, and some are even across the country, in the offices of Pennsylvania Power and Light.
But that’s likely to change in 2015, when the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have the option to buy the dam, thereby becoming the country’s first tribal hydroelectric owners and operators. Rocky Mountain Power Company built the 205-foot-tall impoundment on the Flathead River, four miles downstream of Flathead Lake, against the will of many tribal members in 1938. Gaining control of Kerr Dam will have significant economic and cultural benefits for the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille – the three tribes of the Flathead Reservation.
It’s also given tribal member Daniel Howlett the chance to come home. When he left the Flathead Valley to study business and renewable energy management in Denver, he never expected to have a career on the reservation. Now, he’s a power-marketing coordinator for his tribe’s new energy company, which plans to offer 1.1 million megawatt hours of electricity from the dam annually, enough to power roughly 79,000 homes each year.
The Confederated Tribes already run the reservation’s utility company, have a top-notch natural resources department, and oversee the first tribally administered wilderness in the United States. Obtaining the dam will be another major step in self-determination, probably with impacts far beyond Montana.
Other tribes, such as the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon and the Seneca Nation in New York, are vying for full or majority ownership of hydroelectric dams on their land. They are keeping track of the Kerr Dam purchase, which will shape outside perceptions of tribal energy development. “I think a lot of eyes across the nation, and certainly Indian Country, will appreciate the milestone significance of this achievement,” says Pat Smith, a former attorney for the Salish and Kootenai.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana stand to become the first tribes in the country to own a major hydroelectric dam. In Colorado, tribes are managing parts of hydro projects. All are examples of tribes regaining control of resources on their land. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
In Colorado’s southwest, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe co-manages part of the Dolores Water Project. And, near Durango, the Animas/La Plata project is partially managed by the state’s two tribes. Ernest House directs the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.
“Not only do these water projects strengthen tribal sovereignty, but they also solidify a treaty obligation to the Utes here in Colorado. I think that by the tribe’s involvement in a lot of these projects, it provides a very important tool for future economic development, especially, specifically, water,” he says.
While the project is different, the goals are similar in Montana. When the tribes take over the dam there, they say, their sovereignty will be strengthened.
Jordan Thompson of Energy Keepers Inc. stands high above the Kerr Dam outside of Polson, Montana. The tribes in this area are preparing to take over the hydro project in 2015.
The massive Kerr Dam in Montana is near snowcapped mountains, close to ancient buffalo hunting grounds. Emerald green water violently sloshes over the lip of the dam and into the Flathead River. To say the area’s beautiful, is an understatement.
A 19th century treaty created the Flathead Indian Reservation, and later, white settlement brought agriculture. The massive dam was built on tribal land by a local power company in the 1930’s to quench the thirst of newly planted farms.
“This is a place of great spiritual significance for the tribes, and so when the dam was being built, they really resisted, they were trying to not have that dam built,” says Jordan Thompson.
Thompson’s with the tribally-run company that’s preparing to take over ownership of the dam. Despite tribal protests in the 30’s the dam was built and has been producing electricity ever since..
“There were just a bunch of people who built it, over 1200 people at one point. Ten tribal members were killed during the construction of it. It was built because the tribes were just powerless to do anything to stop it,” Thompson says.
Over the years, the dam supplied millions of dollars worth of power. The tribes received a small portion, as rent. Fish habitats were damaged, as the dam continued to generate electricity.
Now, the dam is about to change hands. A treaty signed in 1985 transfers ownership of the dam to the Salish and Kootenai.
“This is significant because it’s an assertion of the tribes sovereignty over the resources they’ve used for their entire existence,” says Sarah Bates with the University of Montana.
She studies water, natural resources and tribal lands. She says what the Salish and Kootenai are doing is a model for other tribes in the U.S.
“It’s happening around the country, this is something that tribes have the capacity to step up and play not just a stakeholder role, but actually an owner and management role. When they aren’t just participants in a process, but actually gain authority over those facilities, that’s a major step forward in asserting and realizing their sovereignty.”
Tribes in Oregon and New York state are now attempting to gain control of hydroelectric projects.
The 1000 foot boardwalk takes you to an overlook of the Kerr Dam, which stretches 540 feet across and 200 feet high.
The Kerr Dam is run by the company PPL Montana and the tribes are still negotiating the purchase price. PPL Montana values the dam at about $51 million, while the tribes say the number is closer to $16 million. Once the issue is resolved, tribal members plan to take over the dam in September of 2015.
This story is the result of an environmental fellowship put on by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.