Faces of Rivers: Phil Rigdon, Yakama Nation

Faces of Rivers is an ongoing profile series from American Rivers

Phil Rigdon | Photo by Steven Gnam

Many present-day river names are mispronunciations of indigenous names passed down over hundreds — sometimes thousands — of years. A history of colonization and centuries of systemic marginalization, however, have damaged river landscapes essential for the cultural survival of Indigenous Peoples. Today, tribes across the country are leading efforts to remove dams, restore rivers and preserve cultures and economies that rely on healthy river systems. Their efforts are proof that in order to truly conserve our rivers, all voices must be part of the conversation.

Phil Rigdon is a tribal member and director of natural resources for the Yakama Nation in Washington. Here, we talk with him about the tribe’s leadership in protecting and restoring the Yakima River — and his hope for the future.

What does the river mean to the Yakama Nation?

We are one of the Columbia River Treaty tribes — and we’ve spent a lot of time fighting for our right to fish for salmon. In the late 1970s, our leadership hired a biologist and prioritized fisheries and forestry education for our tribal members, and we said, we’re going to use our treaty to find a way to restore the rivers and make them function in the manner that they used to.

That means developing a master plan aimed at fish restoration, at connecting the floodplain with the watersheds, and trying to fix the damages that have been caused. Those things led to this broader conservation conversation about finding ways to get salmon back into places where they’ve been gone for a hundred years because of reservoirs built without fish passage.

What are your priorities for bringing salmon back?

We are leading salmon restoration work. We’ve also been one of the major players in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan. Our goal has been to bring salmon restoration into the plan — to make sure there’s habitat restoration, water storage for fish, conservation of irrigation. There’s a lot of things that have happened in the basin — roads, habitat, development, irrigation. The river is managed for different purposes. This plan is more of a comprehensive approach to restoration, looking at all the different components and trying to find a way forward — for salmon restoration but also to restore the floodplains and the rest of the basin.

It’s always been dry and hot on our side of the mountains, but the one thing it hasn’t had is all these other influences that have changed the way the river runs. We’re trying to return the river so we can restore the salmon to what they were, and get them up into those upper areas where the water is cold and they can flourish.

The Yakima Basin Integrated Plan is still in its beginning phases. What will the future look like?

There have been over 100 years of degradation. It’s going to take a long time to get back to what the river was able to provide for our people. We have a game plan. But we have to be mindful that climate change and other things will play a key role. We’ve been watching these catastrophic fires through the whole West and even in our territory. We need to work hard to do the restoration work because the rivers need it. But we also need to know it will take a long time to see the benefits we’re talking about.

What keeps you inspired?

[At the end of all of this,] I hope we have hundreds of thousands of sockeye and spring chinook and fall Chinook and summer Chinook and coho, and that all the different species are strong and vibrant. And that the river is functioning as it once had and always has. We’re also part of the Yakima Valley and if that community is successful, then it benefits our economy, too. That balance is part of what inspired this work.

The Yakama Nation, American Rivers, other national conservation organizations, irrigation districts and state and federal agencies spent years mapping out a strategy to manage the Yakima River basin. The resulting Yakima Basin Integrated Plan will restore fisheries, improve water supply reliability, protect land for wildlife and the new recreation economy, and meet the challenges of climate change.

Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?