Klamath tribes, feds talk water-land deal
Last March, Interior Secretary Gale Norton opened discussions with tribal leaders on ideas that could return former reservation lands to the tribes and ease ongoing Klamath Basin water concerns. The tribes have senior water rights, but those rights haven’t been quantified in a 26-year-old adjudication proceeding that’s once again in federal court.
Talks resume this month, and the tribes will hold a general council meeting here Feb. 22 to review concepts that might turn into something specific.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out what a specific proposal would be. We’re nowhere near having one yet,” said Bill Bettenberg, director of Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis, who is leading negotiations with tribal leaders.
Bettenberg, contacted at his Washington, D.C. office, said tribal leaders are interested in obtaining national forest lands, including large portions of the Winema National Forest and a small section of the Fremont.
“It’s very much a conceptual beginning,” said Bettenberg.
The tribes have long expressed a desire to get back 692,000 acres of reservation lands sold to the federal government in the 1960s and ’70s that are now part of the national forest system. The Klamath Tribes, which includes the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin band of Paiute tribes, had a reservation that covered 1.2 million acres and a thriving timber economy when the tribe was terminated in 1954.
The tribes have been holding a series of community meetings to help its “working group” establish recommendations to the general council meeting.
At the general council, the working group will make a recommendation “as to the direction the tribes should take in talks with the U.S.,” according to a letter from tribal Chairman Allen Foreman.
“Today we live in an age of possibility,” said Foreman. “Sixteen years ago we moved from a status of non-recognition to a recognized government heavily dependent on the United States for our survival and economic well-being. Now we have a chance to move to an age of independence.”
Foreman urged immediate action, noting, “For the first time in a generation we have high-level government officials seriously discussing the return of our homelands. Because of this we now have a rare and a priceless opportunity to overcome the persistent problems and burdens that were brought to us by termination.”
Bettenberg emphasized the discussions are aimed at long-term solutions that benefit the tribes and ease water concerns.
“I’m not involved in anything that’s short-term,” said Bettenberg.
“I’m not involved in the operating plan or that sort of thing. If we can come up with good proposals that can gain broad community support, those would need to be turned into legislation.”
Bettenberg, who has made several Klamath Basin visits, termed the problems “pretty complex.
“For an irrigation project there is an unusually small amount of water storage,” he said. “That means it’s difficult to even out dry and wet years.”
Along with discussions with tribal leaders, Bettenberg has met with water users, “But just to tell them we’re in an early conceptual stage. Everybody understands we ultimately will have to have proposals that will generate broad community support.”
No immediate public meetings are planned because, “If we had a big community meeting the first question would be, ‘What’s being proposed?’ At this point, nothing.”
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