By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
On Friday evening, Tribal member Bob McConnell towed a 20-foot long redwood canoe across the Nevada dessert, leading a caravan on a mission to America's heartland.
Area tribes, conservation groups and fishermen have taken the Klamath River's problems on the road.
In a high-profile bid to prompt the removal of dams on the waterway, about 35 participants will petition Warren Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, during the company's annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, Neb., on May 5.
"What is the cost of that business to literally tens of thousands of people and to tribal cultures?" McConnell said. "They need to learn who we are."
Berkshire Hathaway owns MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. that last year bought Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp, the power company that operates four dams on the Klamath River.
In full regalia, several Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribal world renewal priests ¬Ė after fasting in the days leading up to the event in order to strengthen their prayers' power ¬Ė will lead a healing ceremony between the Missouri River and the Qwest Center, where Buffett will address his associates at about the same time.
"The Karuk, Hoopa and Yurok have always worked together whenever there's been desperate times and these are desperate times," said Karuk Tribe Klamath Campaign coordinator Craig Tucker.
For years, tribal members, fishermen and conservationists have called for the dams' removal as PacifiCorp seeks to renew a license to run them for another 50 years. The groups have pointed to poor water quality, toxic algae blooms, dwindling salmon populations and a 2002 fish kill when more than 50,000 salmon washed ashore. They also note the offshore commercial salmon fishing season closure last year, based on the low Klamath River stock, that devastated the industry along the California and Oregon coast.
"There's too many signs that it's going down," McConnell said of the river.
The 57-year-old remembers, as a teenager, watching thousands of salmon stream along the Klamath.
"Nowadays, you gotta go to Alaska to see stuff like that and we had it right there, right there in that river," said McConnell, who gave up his river guide business in the 1980s when clients failed to catch fish. "There's just a vast difference in what it was and what it is now."
Restoration, not money
The group started the trip with a rally in San Francisco on Thursday, traveled to Sacramento for a press conference on the California Capital steps yesterday and now head for Salt Lake City, Utah, where they will protest outside the offices of PacifiCorp leaders.
In Omaha, they will host a traditional salmon bake and a brush dance at the Heartland of America Park in the days leading up to the shareholders meeting.
The groups are reenacting the tactic they used in 2004 and 2005 when they traveled to Glasgow, Scotland and hosted similar rallies near the site of the annual shareholder's meeting for Scottish Power that owned PacifiCorp at the time.
"People in Scotland really related to the tribe," Tucker said, comparing Scottish resistence to British rule and Native American tribes' resistence to the U.S. Government. "They really got it."
Scottish Power sold PacifiCorp to Buffett's holdings.
"PacifiCorp's not been a very good negotiating partner," Tucker said, complaining that the company has withheld water quality data. "It's necessary, basically, to climb the corporate ladder and take the case directly to Warren Buffett."
The group will pass out financial information to about 20,000 shareholders expected to attend the meeting. Flyers will break down costs of removing the dams compared to costs of operating them with expensive mitigation measures, including fish ladders, that the federal government would require.
McConnell, though, plans to appeal to Buffett's moral and ethical qualities.
Group members know that the reknowned philanthropist who gives billions of dollars to organizations probably receives all sorts of requests.
"We're not looking for money. We're looking for restored ecosystems that will restore economies, that will restore cultures," said McConnell, a member of the largest and poorest tribe in California, which relies on salmon for food and lacks electricity on more than half of its reservation. "I really want these guys to know how much that river means to the tribal people, and actually the world."
He recalled the waterway's nickname.
"The steelhead capital of the world. It's not anymore," McConnell said.