Klamaths' land claims advance - National forest land could be returned to tribes


Klamath, Ore - 3/20/02 0Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Tuesday she will open formal negotiations with the Klamath Tribes that could lead to the return of a vast tribal reservation that the U.S. government liquidated and turned into national forests decades ago.

Returning the 690,000 acres of Southern Oregon land the tribes want ultimately could help resolve the emotionally charged Klamath River Basin water conflict that boiled over last summer if the tribes, in turn, agree to support a reliable water supply for farm irrigation. The reservation would be the largest in Oregon.

The Klamath Tribes are a leading player in the water struggle. They have the pre-eminent right to much of the basin's water and have long insisted on restoring deteriorating fisheries that once served them as a food source.

Other Oregon tribes have received land as part of official recognition by the government, but the Klamath Tribes are the first to try to recover an original reservation on such a large scale. Norton's intervention suggests the Bush administration sees tribal rights as key to easing the intense competition among tribes, farmers and wildlife for the Klamath Basin's limited water.

"Klamath Tribes have property rights that must be respected and interests that must be honored as we develop solutions," said Norton, who chairs a new presidential working group on Klamath water conflicts.

She said talks would cover a range of land, wildlife and water issues to provide for the tribes while also assuring water for farmers in the 220,000-acre Klamath Project. Any land transfer would need Congress' approval.

"We will discuss ideas to settle land and water conflicts so that everyone can live together in the basin, served by a functioning watershed and a healthy environment," Norton said Tuesday.

The tribes had made the return of their reservation the centerpiece of a self-sufficiency plan delivered to the Interior Department in 2000. But it received little attention until now.

"We've been asking for something like this for some time, but it's one of those things when the stars align," tribal Chairman Allen Foreman said. He said it's the first time the executive branch had stepped up and acted to "heal the land and water" in the Klamath Basin, where the government had promised too much water to too many people.

"Extraordinary" move "It's uncommon -- even extraordinary -- for the secretary of interior to personally step up and talk about these things," said Don Wharton, a senior attorney at the Native American Rights Fund who has represented the Klamath and other tribes in talks with the government.

Angry farmers captured much of the spotlight last summer, when federal agencies withheld irrigation water to help protected fish endure a severe drought. But the Klamath Tribes are just as prominent in the taut tug-of-war over the basin's water and wildlife.

Only two weeks ago, a federal judge in Portland reiterated that tribal water rights supersede all others in the basin. The 3,446-member tribes are entitled to all the water "necessary to support productive habitat" for fish and wildlife they once relied on for food, the judge said.

Among the fish are two species of endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the center of last summer's water dispute.

The tribal water rights grew from the long residence of the Klamath, Modoc and the Snake River Yahooskin band in the Klamath region near the Oregon-California line. In 1864, the tribes ceded 20 million acres of ancestral land to the government but kept a reservation of 2.2 million acres, the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The government gradually removed land from the reservation, paying the tribes as little as 83 cents an acre and leaving them with about 1.2 million acres.

Tribal status terminated In 1954, when the tribes were largely self-sufficient, Congress sought to force members into society by terminating tribal status and eliminating the reservation. Some of the land was sold to timber companies, while about 690,000 acres was added to the Fremont and Winema national forests through condemnation.

Congress assured the tribes of continued hunting, fishing and gathering rights on their former land.

The government eventually paid tribal members about $220 million, plus interest. But the tribes have long contended that was not sufficient compensation for the lost land and resources.

They also argue that excessive logging in the national forests has polluted water and depressed fish and wildlife populations, compromising the hunting and fishing rights Congress had promised.

Congress restored tribal status to the poverty-stricken tribes in 1986. But tribal leaders have since sought to recover their land, too, arguing they would manage it more sustainably, and rehabilitate wildlife and water quality.

"We want to do some restoration of the land that's been devastated over the last 50 years, which would benefit everyone," Foreman said. "When the tribes and the land were healthy and strong, the community was healthy and strong."

Healthier wildlife, fisheries and water quality would allow more flexible water use and open the way for the tribes to free up water for farmers, Wharton said.

"They're willing to defer their right in certain years, when necessary, so long as we've met the standard of survival and restoration of the fishery," he said.

A previous topic Farmers and tribes had discussed a similar arrangement before last summer's struggles derailed the effort. Bud Ullman, a tribal attorney, said relationships from those talks have outlasted the tension, "so there is something to build on as we move forward."

Dan Keppen of the Klamath Water Users Association said Norton's move is a positive sign that the administration is looking for long-term solutions, but he said farmers and other local interests must be included in talks with the tribes.

The tribes have never fully applied their legal rights to water in Klamath because of the difficulties it might impose on others, Wharton said. But the tribes are committed to rebuilding the hunting, fishing and resource-based economy that was once tied to the land.

"The courts haven't said survival of the fisheries but sustainability," he said. "They've never pushed people to that standard, yet that is the standard that has to be met." 


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