PABLO – From this point forward, Kerr Dam on the Flathead River has a new name: Salish-Kootenai Dam.
“We decided to name it after the new owners,” said Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes chairman Vernon Finley.
On Saturday, CSKT held a celebration at the Joe McDonald Health and Fitness Center of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo to commemorate the tribes’ official takeover as owners of the dam, after paying nearly $18.3 million to NorthWestern Energy to acquire the facility.
Finley said when the dam was built in the 1930s, the chiefs of the tribe at the time realized it would be coming “with or without our consent,” as no tribal government existed, and tried to have it happen in a way with the least impact on their people.
“Even though the day is cause for celebration, it's cause for sorrow and mourning of what was lost as well,” he said.
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras denied a temporary restraining order on the sale that was sought through a lawsuit filed Thursday.
NorthWestern Energy purchased Kerr Dam and 10 other hydroelectric facilities from PPL Montana earlier in the year, knowing the license to operate the dam would be transferring to CSKT in September.
Kevin Howlett was a member of the Tribal Council in 1985 when the decision was made to have the tribes become a partner agency in the dam and when they secured an option to buy the facility outright this year.
“There was a lot of ambivalence at the time. A lot of could we, would we hold true,” Howlett said.
Since that time, CSKT has put more than $500,000 per year into the fund set aside for the eventual purchase of the dam.
“Leadership is not about just addressing today’s issues, it’s about formulating strategies going forward,” Howlett said.
In 2014, the tribes and PPL Montana went through arbitration to set the price for the dam’s sale. Although $18.3 million is about $3.5 million more than what CSKT had estimated for the cost, it is more than $30 million less than PPL Montana had set as its valuation.
State, Lake County and Polson School District officials are in discussions with CSKT on potential ways to offset about $1 million in tax revenue annually that will go away now that the tribes own the dam.
In a video shown at the ceremony, Dustin Shelby, compliance manager with Energy Keepers, the tribal corporation set up to run the dam, said gaining ownership is “probably the most prominent exercise of the tribes’ sovereignty.”
“It’s an effort to regain what we lost in the process,” he said. “This is where the struggle starts to transform into hope.”
In his section of the video, in which several tribal members were interviewed on the importance of CSKT taking ownership of the dam, Howlett said it not only provides economic stability, but environmental protections as well.
Teresa Wall McDonald, another member of the Tribal Council in 1985, called the move “unprecedented in Indian country.”
“It is a dream that is fulfilled,” she said.
Finley thanked all of the members of that council for their foresight and vision.
“Since then, 15 elected tribal councils have kept the dam acquisition a priority,” he said.
He said plans are coming together for a memorial for tribal members who were killed during the construction of the dam.
After a procession of current and former Tribal Council members and other honored tribal members entered the gymnasium, Tom Farrell, chairman of the Energy Keepers board, spoke to the crowd.
“We are truly honored that we have been provided this opportunity,” he said. “That transaction in itself is a milestone for the tribe.”
Since the board first began to meet in late 2012, Farrell said it has been led by four goals in how the dam will be managed: to operate it safely, minimize environmental impact, maximize return to shareholders and be a valued corporate citizen in the community and on the reservation.
“As of today, CSKT has achieved our vision of obtaining the Kerr facility,” Farrell said.
Montana lieutenant governor Angela McLean also spoke at the celebration, calling the purchase of the dam “long overdue.”
“Historic, monumental and unprecedented are all words that I have heard to describe this acquisition,” she said, noting that CSKT will be the first tribes in the country to own and operate a hydroelectric facility.
The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Norman Bay, took to the podium to congratulate the tribal nations on their achievement.
“This is a tremendous, historic accomplishment,” he said.
Bay added that FERC is looking forward to talking with other tribes around the country interested in similar undertakings.