Umatilla tribes share Columbia River concerns in Richland meeting

The Columbia and Yakima Rivers merge in the center of the Tri-Cities just south of Columbia Point in Richland.
The Columbia and Yakima Rivers merge in the center of the Tri-Cities just south of Columbia Point in Richland. Tri-City Herald file

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation shared concerns Friday about two Columbia River proposals that could affect burial grounds and archaeological sites in the Tri-Cities.

The tribes’ trustees met with Richland Mayor Bob Thompson and several Richland council members for an annual meeting to discuss common issues.

They questioned the city about its plans for the Columbia Point South area at the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers, as well as a private effort to lobby Congress to transfer control of 34 miles of Columbia River shoreline to local governments from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The tribes will have a big voice in anything that happens on the river because of the presence of the burial grounds and archaeological sites, which are protected by state and federal law.

“If there are going to be economic development discussions, we as a tribe want to be part of the conversation,” Umatilla trustee Armand Minthorn told Thompson, who spoke for the city during the joint session.

Columbia Point South is an area of particular interest.

The city of Richland has eyed the 120 acres it owns for economic development. Earlier this year, officials hired consultant Roger Brooks to create a riverfront vision. He proposed several ambitious ideas for the area as part of a larger presentation about the city’s waterfront.

The Brooks presentation suggested Columbia Point South could be developed with an amusement park, mixed-use housing or visitor amenities such as a destination resort.

Thompson said the city has not discussed proceeding with Brooks’ suggestions and won’t advance plans the tribes oppose.

“If it’s a nonstarter with you, we don’t want to do it,” he said.

David Close, secretary of the tribes’ board, said the tribes will view any development proposal with an eye toward protecting known burial sites and archeological resources.

“If the city wants to show us or give us an idea of what they want to develop at Columbia Point South, we can talk,” Close said, adding that the tribe will not budge on cultural resources.

“The resources are there,” Close said. “They’re invaluable. A price cannot be put on them.”

Separately, the city and tribes indicated they share concerns about a growing chorus of voices asking Congress to return ownership of 34 miles of Columbia River shoreline to local government control.

Former U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, former Kennewick Mayor Brad Fisher and Gary Petersen of the Tri-City Development Council are leading the effort. The two counties, three ports and three cities, including Richland, have expressed support for discussing the transfer, if not for the transfer itself.

The tribes worry that transferring the land out of federal control will come at the tribes’ expense, Minthorn said.

“We want to have assurance that we are not trading away any of our treaty rights,” he said.

In February, Thompson wrote that the city supports the discussion about transferring the shoreline. Friday, he clarified his position.

“The city of Richland isn’t a big proponent,” he said.

Thompson advised the tribes to make their views known quickly, citing growing interest in the topic in the Tri-Cities and in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. House of Representatives directed the Army Corps of Engineers to account for how it acquired the shoreline in the Defense Authorization Bill approved earlier this year.

Tribal leaders will hold a similar meeting with the Port of Kennewick at 10 a.m., Sept. 1 at the Nixyaawill Governance Center, 46411 Timine Way, Pendleton.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell