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When Yakama Nation leaders learned in 2017 of a plan to tunnel through some of their ancestral land for a green energy development, they were caught off guard.

While the tribal nation had come out in favor of climate-friendly projects, this one appeared poised to damage Pushpum, a privately owned ridgeline overlooking the Columbia River in Washington. The nation holds treaty rights to gather traditional foods there, and tribal officials knew they had to stop the project.

Problems arose when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency in charge of permitting hydro energy projects, offered the Yakama Nation what tribal leaders considered an impossible choice: disclose confidential ceremonial, archaeological and cultural knowledge, or waive the right to consult on whether and how the site is developed.

This put the Yakama Nation in a bind. Disclosing exactly what made the land sacred risked revealing to outsiders what they treasured most about it. In the past, disclosure of information about everything from food to archaeological sites enabled non-Natives to loot or otherwise desecrate the land.

Even now, tribal leaders struggle to safely express what the Pushpum project threatens. “I don’t know how in-depth I can go,” said Elaine Harvey, a tribal member and former environmental coordinator for the tribal fisheries department, when asked about the foods and medicines that grow on the land.

“It provides for us,” echoed Yakama Nation Councilmember Jeremy Takala. “Sometimes we do get really protective.”

Although government agencies have sometimes taken significant steps to protect tribal confidentiality, that didn’t happen with the Pushpum proposal, known as the Goldendale Energy Storage Project. Tribal leaders repeatedly objected, telling the agency that if a tribal nation deems a place sacred, they shouldn’t have to break confidentiality to prove it — a position supported by state agency leaders and, new reporting shows, at least one other federal agency.

Nonetheless, after seven years, in February FERC moved the project forward without consulting with the Yakama Nation.

The process known as consultation is often fraught. Federal laws and agency rules require that tribes be able to weigh in on decisions that affect their treaty lands. But in practice, consultation procedures sometimes force tribes to reveal information that makes them more vulnerable, without offering any guaranteed benefit.

The risks of disclosure are not hypothetical: Looting and vandalism are common when information about Indigenous resources becomes public. One important mid-Columbia petroglyph, called Tsagaglalal, or She Who Watches, had to be removed from its original site because of vandalism. And recreational and commercial pickers have flooded one of Washington’s best huckleberry picking areas, called Indian Heaven Wilderness, pushing out Native families trying to stock up for the winter.

The Yakama Nation feared similar outcomes if it fully participated in FERC’s consultation process over the Goldendale development. But there are alternatives. The United Nations recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to affirmatively consent to development on their sacred lands. A similar model was included in state legislation in Washington three years ago, but Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed it.

The requirements of the consultation process are poorly defined, and state and federal agencies interpret them in a broad range of ways. In the case of Pushpum, critics say that has allowed FERC to overlook tribal concerns.

“They’re just being totally disregarded,” said Simone Anter, an attorney at the environmental nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper and a descendant of the Pascua Yaqui and Jicarilla Apache nations. “What FERC is doing is so blatantly, blatantly wrong.”

Left to right: Local leaders Elaine Harvey, Jeremy Takala and Simone Anter have expressed concern about the fate of Pushpum. Credit: Photo illustration by J.D. Reeves. Portraits by Leah Nash, Jurgen Hess/Columbia Insight, and Steven Patenaude. Map via the U.S. Geological Survey. Documents via the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Yakama Nation has been outspoken in its support for renewable energy development, including solar and small-scale hydro projects. But not at Pushpum; it’s sacred to the Kah-milt-pah people, one of the bands within the Yakama Nation, who still regularly use the site.

The proposal would transform this area into a facility intended to store renewable energy in a low-carbon way. Rye Development, a Florida-based company, submitted an application for permits for a “pumped hydro” system, where a pair of reservoirs connected by a tunnel store energy for future use.

FERC has offered few accommodations for the Yakama Nation on the Goldendale project.

FERC spokesperson Celeste Miller told High Country News and ProPublica in an email that “we will work to address the effects of proposed projects on Tribal rights and resources to the greatest extent we can, consistent with federal law and regulations. This is a pending matter before the Commission, so we cannot discuss the merits of this proceeding.”

“FERC legally doesn’t have to do very much here,” said Kevin Washburn, a dean of the University of Iowa College of Law, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and a former assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior. “Consultation is designed to open the door so tribes can get in the door to talk to decision-makers.” According to experts, the process can range from collaborative planning that addresses tribal concerns to a perfunctory discussion with minimal impacts, depending on the agency.

“This is the problem with consultation and its lack of teeth,” said Anter. “If the federal government is saying, ‘Hey, we consulted, check that box,’ who’s to say they didn't?”

There’s another problem with consultation, too: Any discussions with a federal entity are subject to public disclosure. That’s good for government transparency, Washburn said, but it can make tribal nations even more vulnerable. “And it’s why tribes are right to be cautious in what they share with feds,” he said.

That’s an obstacle at Pushpum. Things became even harder there in August 2021, when FERC notified the Yakama Nation that federal consultation would be carried out not by the agency itself, but by the developer. The Yakama Nation pushed back, asserting its treaty rights to negotiate as a sovereign nation only with another nation, not with a private entity. FERC, however, insisted that designating a third party was “standard practice.” The National Historic Preservation Act, signed into law in 1966, says an agency “may authorize an applicant or group of applicants to initiate consultation,” but maintains that the federal agency is still “responsible for their government to government relationships with Indian tribes.”

The Yakama Nation also worried about commission rules that require anything the tribal nation says to FERC be shared with the developer. “It gets very sensitive when we share those kinds of stories,” said Takala, the tribal councilmember. “We just don’t share to anyone, especially a developer.”

Some say FERC could change that internal rule, since it isn’t required by law. “For them to cite their own regulations and be like, ‘Our hands are tied,’ is ridiculous,” Anter said. For months, FERC and the Yakama Nation went back and forth over the conditions under which the tribal government would share sensitive information, with the Yakama Nation repeatedly asking to share information only with FERC.

This is the problem with consultation and its lack of teeth. … If the federal government is saying, ‘Hey, we consulted, check that box,’ who’s to say they didn’t?

—Simone Anter, environmental attorney and descendant of the Pascua Yaqui and Jicarilla Apache nations

Ultimately, FERC proposed four ways the Yakama Nation could participate in consultation. In the eyes of tribal leaders, all these options either posed significant risks to the privacy of their information or rendered consultation meaningless.

The first three were laid out in a letter from Vince Yearick, director of FERC’s division of hydropower licensing, sent on Dec. 9, 2021. For option one, it suggested the tribal nation request nondisclosure agreements from anyone accessing sensitive information. Yearick did not specify whether FERC would be responsible for issuing or enforcing these NDAs.

Delano Saluskin, then-chair of the Yakama Nation, called this option “far from the requirements of NHPA or in line with the trust responsibility that the Federal Agency has to Yakama Nation,” citing FERC policies and National Historic Preservation Act law in a February 2022 letter to state and federal government officials requesting support. He added that it “describes a process that does not protect information that is sacred and sensitive from disclosure.”

Alternatively, FERC said, the Yakama Nation could simply redact any sensitive information from documents it filed. This option, however, would leave FERC in the dark about the details of what cultural resources the project would imperil. That would make it harder for FERC to require project adjustments or weigh the specific impacts in its decision about whether to permit construction.

Third, the Yakama Nation could withhold sensitive information altogether, which would present similar problems.

Lastly, in a June 2022 follow-up letter, the commission suggested that the Yakama Nation submit a document “with more details regarding the resources of concern” and a request that some of the information be treated as privileged or withheld from public disclosure.

Overall, Saluskin described FERC’s options as a “failure” to conduct legal consultation in good faith.

A federal agency similarly raised concerns: In May 2023, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which advises the president and the Congress on protecting historic properties across the country, wrote to FERC suggesting that it “provide the Tribes with opportunities to share information that will be kept confidential.” FERC’s rule regarding disclosure, the council said, could insulate the agency from meaningful consultation, “and as a result from any real understanding of the nature and significance of properties of religious and cultural significance for Tribes.”

The concerns over FERC’s engagement with the Yakama Nation are part of a wider discussion of whether and how the U.S. government should protect tribal privacy and cultural resources. Speaking at a tribal energy summit in Tacoma in June 2023, Allyson Brooks, Washington’s state historic preservation officer, said that even though the consent language was vetoed by the governor, state law for protecting confidentiality around tribal cultural properties is still stronger than federal law, which only protects confidentiality if a site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

In Washington, if a tribal historic preservation officer says, “‘X marks the spot; this is sacred,’ we say, ‘OK,’” Brooks declared. She said asking tribal nations to prove a site’s sacredness is like asking to see a photo of baby Jesus before accepting the sanctity of Christmas. “You don’t. You say ‘nice tree’ and take it at face value. When tribes say ‘X is sacred,’ you should take that at face value too.”

That approach is vital to the Yakama Nation, which recently saw a developer involved with a project proposed in nearby Benton County leak information that the nation believed was private.

We don’t write it, you won’t see it posted. You won’t see it in books. It’s our oral history. It’s sacred.

—Bronsco Jim, a spiritual leader of the Kah-milt-pah people

The Horse Heaven Hills wind farm would be the biggest energy development of any kind in Washington state history. But the sprawling 72,000-acre project overlaps with nesting habitat for migratory ferruginous hawks, a raptor state-listed as endangered.

Court documents related to the permitting proceedings show that the Yakama Nation believed it had identified the locations of the ferruginous hawks’ nests as confidential, in part because the hawks are ceremonially important. In May 2023, the Yakama Nation requested a protective order from the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, a state-level analog of FERC. The order, which the council issued, instructed all parties to sign a confidentiality agreement before accessing confidential information, similar to the nondisclosure agreements FERC proposed. If any party disclosed that information, they could be liable for damages.

But the order didn’t stop that information from getting out. In February 2024, the Seattle Times published a story on the Horse Heaven Hills wind farm, which included a map of ferruginous hawk nests — a map that was credited to Scout Clean Energy, the developer.

The Yakama Nation quickly filed a motion to enforce the protective order, alleging that Scout Clean Energy had transgressed by passing protected cultural information to the press.

The developer counter-filed, claiming that even if nest locations were a part of confidentiality discussion, the map itself was not, and that it was so imprecise that the critical details remained confidential. The council ultimately agreed.

Despite the risks, Washburn said that tribes should take any opportunity to share their stories with federal officials, even if the conditions aren’t perfect. “I wouldn’t necessarily encourage tribes to give their deepest, darkest secrets to a federal agency,” he said. “But I would encourage them to meet with FERC and try to give FERC a first-person account of why they think this is important.”

Not all experts agree. Brett Lee Shelton, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and an attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, said FERC is out of step with other federal and state agencies. “It’s hard to believe that it’s anything but disingenuous, using that tactic,” he said. “It’s pretty well known by any agency officials who deal with Indian tribes that sometimes certain specifics about sacred places need to remain confidential.”

And for Bronsco Jim, a spiritual leader of the Kah-milt-pah people, sharing too many details is out of the question. Cultural specifics stay within the oral teachings of the longhouse, the site of the Kah-milt-pah spiritual community. Jim said he doesn’t even know how to translate all of the information into English. “We don’t write it, you won’t see it posted. You won’t see it in books. It’s our oral history. It’s sacred.”