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County plays unofficial role in land negotiations

Published Oct 26, 2003


While a proposal to return thousands of acres of federal land to the Klamath Tribes is still only in the discussion phase, Klamath County Commissioners are working behind the scenes to make sure all their constituents - including both Native Americans and irrigators - are being heard.

The negotiations are really between the tribes and federal government, so officially, there's little the commissioners can do.

"It's going to be out of our hands, just like it was out of our hands with the original land deal," Commissioner John Elliott said.

But, he added, "We hope to shape some of the discussions."

Elliott, along with Commissioner Steve West and Chairman Al Switzer, will take part in a joint meeting with the Tribes in mid-December to establish a dialogue.

West, the natural resources liaison for the county, said it's encouraging that irrigators and the Tribes have maintained good relationships without being derailed by "extremist" environmental groups like the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

"I would be so bold to suggest that even the ONRC and other extremist environmental groups would acknowledge the relationship between the Tribes and water users is improving," he said.

West said negotiating with the various parties is an important part of his job.

"Quite frankly, that kind of work doesn't make headlines, and when I've done the best, people probably won't know I've done it," he said.

The commissioner added in any given period of time, he's in communication with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials, the water users, the Klamath Tribes, Bureau of Reclamation and Department of the Interior officials in Washington, D.C., and various officials in Salem and Sacramento.

Switzer said the board will be doing everything it can to see that its constituents get their fair share.

"We don't have a role in negotiations per se, but we do have a role and an obligation to represent the people of this community," he said. "We can certainly let (federal officials) know how (constituents) are feeling in this community."

He added in spite of recent announcements that the Klamath Tribes are not in favor of a land-for-water-rights swap, he thinks a similar plan would give the best deal to both sides.

"I think you have to solve some of the problems of irrigators and agriculture along with this, or you cause more problems," he said.

Elliott said there are still many aspects of the proposal that still need to be worked through. There are still some questions and issues he thinks need to be addressed. Would Native Americans on a reservation still be his constituents? What would happen to federal forest dollars currently used by the county? What will landowners do when they need to access roads that fall under the control of the Klamath Tribes?

"I think it's a really challenging time," he said. "It's challenging in the best sense of the word."

He added he's looking forward to the outcome of the December meeting with the Klamath Tribes.

"It's going to be an excellent opportunity for all individuals to know where we are, where we were and where we're going," he said.

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