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Glimpse into closed-door sessions

Published Dec 14, 2003


After meeting behind closed doors for the past three months, an informal group of influential community leaders working on land and water issues announced Friday it will soon unveil a set of four initiatives aimed at resolving longstanding conflicts.

The initiatives are: a balance of uses for water; ecosystem restoration; settlement of adjudication; and re-establishment of a reservation for the Klamath Tribes.

The group, which has no name but includes prominent leaders of the Tribes and the agriculture industry, met Friday with the Herald and News editorial board, a reporter and a photographer.

Five members of the group spent an hour outlining what the group has accomplished so far, and what remains to be done.

They emphasized the group has focused primarily on striking a balance of demands for water in the Upper Klamath Basin. Although restoration of a tribal reservation is one of the four initiatives, the group has devoted very little time to that issue, group members said.

The group has held eight meetings - all by invitation only. Jim Root, board member of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust and one of the group's spokesmen, said making the meetings open to the public would have a "chilling effect" on the discussions.

"There has been recognition that this can't be an organized discussion in a town hall format," he said.

Because of the closed door, some have called the meetings the "secret" meetings. Others have called them the Root meetings because Root was one of the people who got them going.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association and one of the five to meet with editors, said the group's meetings are just one of three parallel processes going on at present.

The other two processes are the Tribes' public effort to get a reservation, and the U.S. Interior Department's effort to reach a settlement of land and water issues.

So, with the current political climate, including a sitting president who pays attention to Klamath issues and stakeholder groups willing to compromise - the members said there is a window of opportunity for the group to make recommendations that help lead to a settlement.

Keppen said all the processes are important for a solution to be found.

"At some point, if it all works out, it will converge," Keppen said.

An agreement could bring a re-established reservation for the Klamath Tribes, restored habitat for endangered suckers and threatened coho salmon, and increased certainty of water deliveries for irrigators in the Klamath Reclamation Project, group members said Friday.

The group expects to propose a federal appropriation of $400 million for watershed restoration, as well as $100 million for economic revitalization in the Upper and Lower Klamath Basin.

Root said members of the group know they aren't going to get everything they want, but most are willing to settle for something less in order to get what is most important.

During its meeting at the Shilo Inn Friday, the group talked about water balance and looked at results of computer models. Root said the bulk of the eight meetings has been devoted to this topic.

Not only does the group spend its time talking about issues and brainstorming, but its members also eat catered lunches together.

Root said the water balance initiative is taking a lot of time because there are so many variables and it is the crucial base that the other initiatives will be built on.

Its original deadline to have the initiatives done was Dec. 2. Root said the group hasn't set any new target dates and the next meeting isn't planned yet as the members take time off for the holidays.

Although the group eventually plans to talk about the possible re-establishment of a reservation for the Tribes, little has been said about the topic so far in the meetings.

Joe Browder, an advisor to the Tribes from Washington, D.C., said in all the hours the group has meet - the meetings usually go 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a lunch break - the group has talked about the re-establishment of a reservation for about 15 minutes.

The Tribes have been talking with the federal government about the possible re-establishment of a reservation for years, but talks about a potential return of national forest land started in earnest about a year ago.

Though the stakeholders have different opinions on many issues, Browder said he sees the potential for agreement.

"I don't see any irreconcilable differences here," he said.

Keppen said he has heard from members of his association and people in the public that they think the group is negotiating a tribal land deal.

"I think the perception that we are going to cut a deal," Keppen said. "That is just not the case."

He also said rumors about the group's work have been spread by parties who weren't invited to participate, in some cases because they would have been disruptive. There are some, he said, who benefit from delays in the adjudication process.

"There are different groups out there who want the status quo to remain out there - especially the adjudication," Keppen said.

But the stakeholders in the meetings want change.

Root said all those coming to the meetings have something they want to get out of them.

"All the people who came in with different aspirations and burdens," Root said.

During the last two group meetings, demonstrators gathered in front of the Shilo to protest the proposal to restore the tribes' reservation.

The members of the group said they are feeling heat about the meetings not just from outside, but also from their own constituents.

Keppen and Foreman both said members of their groups are uneasy about the meetings.

"You're getting it from both sides," Foreman said.

All the members said they thought about walking away from the meetings at some point. But all have stayed, and plan to keep going until they get the initiatives done.

Root said he is the meeting facilitator, but there is no hierarchy guiding the talks.

Foreman said he hopes the group completes its work, and doesn't fall apart because of conflict or premature criticism.

"I mean, termination was a terrible tragedy, but this would be even worse," he said. "If those groups are allowed to tear this apart, then the whole Basin will suffer for years."

Those at Friday's meetings were Jeff Mitchell, former Tribes chairman; Keppen; Gerald Skelton, Tribes cultural director; Elwood Miller, former Tribes chairman; Browder; Joe Hobbs, Tribes vice chairman; Root; Jim Popson, upper Basin irrigator; Chuck Bacchi, Fort Klamath rancher; Gary Wright, project irrigator; Dave Solem, Klamath Irrigation District manager; Doug Whitsett, Water for Life president; Steve West, Klamath County commissioner; Kurt Thomas, Rangeland Trust board member; and Larry Dunsmoor, Tribes biologist.

Two regulars were absent. Becky Hyde, a Sprague River rancher, had the flu, and John Crawford, project irrigator, was on an elk hunt in Colorado.

Sitting in on the meeting were Marshall Staunton, project irrigator; and Mark Stern, who is with the Nature Conservancy. The two are the co-chairs of the Hatfield group.

Reporter Dylan Darling covers natural resources. He can be reached at 885-4471, (800) 275-0982, or by e-mail at ddarling@heraldandnews.com.


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