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Conservationists' Letter on proposed transfer of National Forest Lands to The Klamath Tribes
http://www.onrc.org/programs/klamath/wydenletter10.9.03.html

Conservationists' Letter on proposed transfer
of National Forest Lands to The Klamath Tribes



The Honorable Ron Wyden
United States Senate
516 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

October 8, 2003

Dear Senator Wyden,

As members of the conservation community, we write to you to express our opposition to the Bush administration's proposed plan to transfer over 1,000 square miles of Winema-Fremont National Forest land to The Klamath Tribes. While we support efforts to redress the many wrongs done to America's native peoples, including The Klamath Tribes, we oppose this remedy for the following reasons.

Background

Vast areas of southern Oregon are under private industrial forest ownership. Because these private lands are so aggressively managed, the survival of several threatened and endangered species (including bald eagles and spotted owls) depends on strong conservation of federal lands.

The forests the Tribes seek to acquire represent vital habitat for bald eagles, spotted owls, goshawks, pileated woodpeckers, pine martens, and hundreds of other species associated with mature and old-growth forests. Approximately 47,000 acres of roadless areas suitable for wilderness designation are located within these public forests. Over 136,000 acres of old-growth forests grace the landscape, as well as 2,270 acres of public lands within the 24.2 mile Sycan Wild and Scenic River corridor. A further 28 miles of public land bordering the lower Williamson River qualifies for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The Northwest Forest Plan has designated 5,619 acres of Late Successional Reserves and 4,142 acres of Riparian Reserves here. 804 acres of designated Research Natural Areas also are located in these public lands, as well as 58,988 acres of big game habitat. Geologically unique lands, such as the Devil's Garden and Pinnacles, are protected as Geologic Areas on public lands, while such other beautiful locations as the Williamson River Gorge, Upper Williamson, and Saddle Mountain are protected from logging by federal law.

Removing Public Land from Public Ownership

America's Winema and Fremont National Forest belongs to all Americans. These public lands are appreciated for their scenic beauty, recreational opportunities and their invaluable ecological role in conserving wildlife. Currently Americans have the right to visit, traverse, hunt and fish, and enjoy their National Forests except under very specific circumstances.

Under the proposal, the area of Winema and Fremont National Forest lands to be transferred to The Klamath Tribes is slightly larger in size than the entire state of Rhode Island. These vast forest lands, worth over one billion dollars, would be held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the use and benefit of approximately 3,000 tribal members. The only previous transfer in Oregon's recent history was the transfer of 5,400 acres of federal forests to the 695 members of the Coquille Tribe in 1996. Should this proposal succeed, what will be the response of the Coquille, Grande Ronde and Siletz tribes, who have less than a tenth of this acreage?

Loss of Access to Public Land

Once lands pass out of the National Forest system, there will be no unalterable rights of access to these forests. A change in tribal leadership could suspend or abrogate access to particular forests and citizens may or may not have legal standing to challenge that suspension through Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative courts.

Loss of Federal Environmental Laws and Policies

Giving public lands to the Tribes is consistent with the wishes of some politicians and the Bush administration to divest public resources and dismantle landmark environmental laws and policies. As citizen-owners of the National Forests, all Americans can now participate in the management of their forests, comment on National Forest operations and utilize all branches of government to ensure that the National Forests are managed in accordance with longstanding environmental safeguards. This transfer of lands would undermine these rights.

While the Forest Service is an agency with an imperfect history, it is charged by Congress to manage public lands with conservation values as part of its mandate. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has no such mandate. It is the responsibility of the Forest Service to "sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations." It is the responsibility of the BIA to "develop forest land and lease assets on this land" for the economic benefit of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Application of landmark environmental laws and safeguards, such as the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Forest Management Act, will be limited or lost if these public forests are no longer managed by the Forest Service on behalf of all Americans.

While The Klamath Tribes have offered a limited waiver of sovereign immunity to allow some public challenges of tribal forestry activities, such challenges would be limited to the tribal court and reviewed only by a U.S. District Court. No appeal to the Court of Appeals or U.S. Supreme Court would be allowed.

Diminishing Citizen Participation in Land Management Decisions

Conservationists' recent experience with other tribal forest land acquisitions shows that the public can lose a lot in these transfers. The Coquille Tribe acquired 5,400 acres of public forests in 1996. The BIA failed to follow existing law and policy as promised in the authorizing legislation, claiming that the Tribe's sovereignty outweighed the need to follow sound forest management requirements. Citizens were asked to post burdensome bonds and were ultimately refused standing to challenge the illegal logging plans in BIA administrative courts. In 2001 and 2002, the BIA clearcut ancient forests in critical salmon watersheds in violation of the Endangered Species Act before they were held accountable by the public in the courts at great effort and expense.

Since the BIA holds these lands in trust for sovereign governments, citizen attempts to modify management decisions will be much more difficult than attempts to modify decisions about public lands. This is one reason that public lands should remain in public hands and managed under existing environmental laws.

Public Lands Are the Best Way to Secure Fish and Wildlife Habitat

Maintenance of public lands is crucial for the maintenance of functioning ecosystems, both across the landscape and over time. While the Tribes claim they wish to manage the lands for multiple natural benefits, they also seek to sustain their tribal community almost entirely by proceeds from commercial logging of the forestlands. Unfortunately, history demonstrates these two goals are incompatible.

Rare Old-Growth Forest and Important Roadless Areas Would Leave Public Ownership

136,403 acres of old-growth forest are included in the proposed transfer. 47,180 acres of roadless lands (>1,000+ acres in size) also lie within the proposed transfer. Old-growth forests and roadless areas are anchors of biological diversity and watershed integrity. Despite any best intentions of the Tribes to conserve and restore old growth and roadless areas, these forests will always represent some of the most attractive areas for the Tribes to log. Moreover, the body of statutory and case law requiring the conservation of old growth forest and roadless areas on public lands would no longer apply to these forests.

Ecological Research Opportunities Could Be Lost

804 acres of designated Research Natural Areas are found on the requested lands. When lands on the Mount Hood National Forest were transferred to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in the late 1970s, the Persia M. Robinson Research Natural Area was lost to science.

Current Wild and Scenic River and Potential Wild and Scenic River Could Be Lost

2,270 acres of public lands within the 24.2 miles of the Sycan Wild and Scenic River would be lost. In addition, 28 miles of the lower Williamson River qualify for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Though wild and scenic river designations are not limited to federal land, Oregon's national Wild and Scenic Rivers have only been designated where public land represented the vast majority of the affected acreage.

Mismanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs

The proposal would transfer Winema and Fremont National Forest lands from the Forest Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA is an agency currently embroiled in a massive mismanagement scandal resulting from its failure to track the royalty receipts for trustees. The agency's malfeasance is so egregious that the Secretary of Interior has been declared in contempt of court for her agency's lack of fiscal responsibility. As the BIA has been such a poor steward of both native peoples' money and land, giving this agency responsibility for over 695,000 acres of public land is an untenable gamble with precious resources.

Worsening Economic Dependency

One of the first rules of business is to avoid investing in a declining market. While The Klamath Tribes state an interest in managing the forest for ecological restoration, they also seek to become economically self-sufficient through these activities. It is unlikely that they can achieve both goals given current market conditions. Timber prices in the Northwest are at historical lows and competition from foreign suppliers is at an all time high. If the choice is logging a sensitive area to maintain revenues or closing the health clinic, what will the Tribes do?

Other Solutions Available

Through decades of overcutting, our forest "accounts" are already tragically overdrawn. We support economic self-sufficiency for native peoples but we strongly oppose using publicly owned forests as a blank check in an attempt to right past wrongs.

We need an open public discussion of alternate means to right these historical wrongs. Creating a tribal homeland for the 3,000 members of The Klamath Tribes may be a part of a just and equitable solution. Private lands, encompassing more than 400,000 acres within the former reservation boundary, could be purchased from private sellers by the United States government on behalf of the Tribes. Alternatively, federal funds could be transferred to the Tribes to execute the purchase.

It may be that the land base needed to maintain cultural identity and the best economic future for The Klamath Tribes are separate issues. Indeed, the future prosperity of most Oregonians is based in a move away from extractive uses of our lands and toward technological creativity and service and recreational economies. Federal appropriations could support tribal investment in stable and profitable businesses.

We support the efforts of The Klamath Tribes to become economically self-sufficient. At the same time, we strongly oppose a plan which would turn over Winema and Fremont National Forest lands to the Bureau of Indian affairs and limit or remove landmark environmental laws that currently benefit all Americans. As leaders in Oregon's conservation community, we urge you to oppose this proposal and to work to identify and fund good alternatives.

Sincerely,

Audubon Oregon
Audubon Society of Corvallis
Audubon Society of Portland
Bark
Coast Range Association
Friends of Breitenbush
Friends of the Columbia Gorge
Hells Canyon Preservation Council
Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center
Oregon Natural Resources Council
OSPIRG
Rogue Valley Audubon Society
Salem Audubon Society
Siskiyou Regional Education Project
Soda Mountain Preservation Council
Umpqua Watersheds
Western Land Exchange Project



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