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Basin landowners bash ONRC plan

Published October 10, 2003


The Oregon Natural Resources Council's proposal that the federal government buy or condemn private land to make a new reservation for the Klamath Tribes has added more fuel to what shapes up as a historic controversy.

Many landowners above Upper Klamath Lake don't like the idea of private landowners being bought out or pushed aside, said Ed Bartel, president of the Resource Conservancy, a landowner group involved in the water rights adjudication.

Members of the conservancy, which Bartel said represents most of Basin irrigators who don't get water from the Klamath Reclamation Project, are still trying to digest all of ONRC's proposal, but they didn't like what they have tasted so far.

"Our members are outraged about it," he said.

And, Bartel said, he and other landowners above Upper Klamath Lake aren't too excited about the idea of the government giving the Tribes more than 600,000 acres of national forests for a new reservation because of the changes it could mean for the management of the public lands around them.

He said many landowners above the Basin are uneasy about the possibility of losing their land or their water rights as a result of a negotiation process they haven't been privy to.

"With all these proposals, no one seems to be discussing community," he said.

Jim Root, a cattle rancher in the Wood River Valley who leads a group that has experimented with leasing water rights to the government, said he wants to see details of proposals by the Tribes and ONRC so he can compare the two.

He said it's too early to judge the ONRC plan, but so far he doesn't see any advantages.

"The ONRC proposal just strikes me as something that's not going to bring economical or ecological gain to Klamath County," he said. "That's the standard I will judge them on."

Roger Nicholson, a rancher near Fort Klamath and a member of the conservancy, said the conservancy represents the people who live in the private land that was part of the former reservation and the land that was right next to it.

He said the group has tried to contact Bill Bettenberg, director of the Interior Department's office of policy analysis, who has been speaking for the government in the negotiations, but it didn't get any response.

"They have not even come close to us," Nicholson said. "I think we are one of the most affected groups who haven't been talked to yet," he said.

Informal meetings between the Tribes, the Klamath Water Users Association and the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust have been going on for the last couple of months. The Tribes and the government have been meeting for about a year to discuss a deal.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the ONRC is trying to divide the groups involved in the water issue with its proposal.

"They are very effective at generating turmoil within rural communities by pitting one interest group against another..." he said. "Now they are attempting to divide the Upper Basin community through a buyout of private lands that would be returned to the tribes."

He said the ONRC has done nothing but file lawsuits that clog the progress of negotiating a solution.

"We have pretty much dismissed the ONRC as being able to help find a solution," Keppen said.

Jim McCarthy, ONRC policy analyst, said the group knows that some people call it an "evil interloper" that is anti-farming.

He rebuts those claims.

"Certainly, the ONRC has no interest in extinguishing agriculture," he said.

He said the group wants to find a way to have thriving agriculture, fish and forests.

With the announcement of the proposal, the ONRC also sent letters to U.S. Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, all from Oregon.

Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff, said Wyden hadn't had a chance to review the proposal yet because his office had just received it Thursday afternoon.

He did say Wyden supports the idea of the Tribes getting land from the government.

Two years ago Wyden asked the Bush administration to consider a deal that would involve the exchange of land for water rights, Kardon said. He said Wyden still supports the idea.

"Sen. Wyden continues to believe that the Klamath Tribes should be re-landed and is open to creative ideas that will help us solve the many challenges facing agriculture in the Klamath Basin," he said.





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