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An uphill fight
Tribes' efforts to regain former reservation land find little support
Last of five parts
More than four decades after termination, the Klamath Tribes are still working to regain the former reservation the members refer to as their homeland.
They claim it would be in the best interest of the Tribes, county, state and country.
"We have the opportunity to have a better Basin," said Allen Foreman, chairman of the Klamath Tribes.
It's not an idea that finds much support outside the Tribes.
"I'm sure there isn't any proposal I could support that would gift the land," said Klamath County Commissioner John Elliott.
The Tribes' best hope may be to use their clout on water issues to leverage a concession on the subject of land.
Water unites, divides
Water holds the key to many political debates, often bringing various groups together while sometimes pitting one against another.
The summer of 2001, when much of the Klamath Reclamation Project was shut down for most of the growing season, widened the gap between groups already divided, and further bound those already together.
Since 2001, there have been many efforts to try to get the groups together, but the debate is still fierce and positions firmly entrenched.
The Tribes hold a trump card on water issues, with the oldest claims for water in the upper Klamath Basin. By easing their demands for water, the Tribes may win support among farmers for getting their reservation back.
But such a deal has been hard to broker, and several attempts to do so have proved fruitless.
In January, the Tribes announced that they had launched a new effort to regain a reservation. Although they didn't go public with any details of their plan, a draft document leaked to the Herald and News outlined some of its elements.
Also in January, the Herald and News learned that the Tribes had been meeting with irrigators from above Upper Klamath Lake in meetings set up by former state Sen. Steve Harper.
The following month, the Tribes and a group of irrigators above Upper Klamath Lake agreed to drop challenges against each other's water claims in the state's adjudication process. The deal could affect about 280,000 acres of agricultural land above the lake.
Fort Klamath rancher Roger Nicholson and Foreman both traveled to Washington, D.C., in early March to talk to the Oregon congressional delegation about the agreement.
One of those they met with was U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican whose district includes Klamath and Lake counties. The lawmaker was glad to see an agreement among factions in the Klamath water issue, said Angela Wilhelms, Walden's spokeswoman.
"He's looking to do his part now," she said.
But there there is no formal timeline nor any clear plan for what happens next.
"How it will progress, we are just not sure yet," Wilhelms said.
The parties involved with the agreement - Foreman, Harper and Nicholson - insist the ribes' effort to regain a homeland was not an issue in the discussions, and the agreement doesn't mention the issue.
But in the tribal document provided to the Herald and News in January, the Tribes mention the agreement with the irrigators from above the lake as part of their plan to get a reservation again.
Land and more
The 730,000-acre patchwork piece of federal land sought by the Tribes - roughly the size of Rhode Island - includes all land within the former reservation boundary that is now under federal control. Most of the land in question is within the Fremont-Winema National Forests.
Tribal leaders say they won't make any attempt to recover former reservation lands now in private ownership.
Not only do the Tribes want the public land, but they also want the buildings on it, a fleet of government vehicles and the annual budget to operate the forest from the federal government. The transfer of the land, building and vehicles would take place in a seen-year process, according to the Tribes.
Tribal officials say they want to rehabilitate the land and its resources. Those in opposition say the land is best left in the hands of the federal government, and are worried about what would happen to the rights of people who own land surrounded by Forest Service land.
The debate about the Tribes' future has brought up issues of their past, with groups arguing about whether the Tribes were swindled out of their 1.2 million-acre reservation, or if they willingly sold most it to the federal government following termination in 1954.
Some tribal members argue there was a misunderstanding by those who voted in 1958 to withdraw from the Tribe and sell the reservation. They say those who voted to withdraw thought their vote would only end federal supervision of the Tribe and the reservation.
Critics says the tribal members knew that the deal meant the reservation land would be sold, and that they simply wanted the cash.
Foreman said he is still optimistic about the possibility of the Tribes getting a reservation again, but he wouldn't speculate on when it might happen.
Bill Bettenberg, director of the Interior Department's Office of Policy and Analysis, was designated by the Bush administration in 2002 to meet with the Tribes about the restoration of a reservation. But he recently said he has been preoccupied with other issues and hasn't had a chance to focus on it.
There have been "a few phone calls, but no meetings," Bettenberg said. "Last time I was in the Klamath Basin was early last year."
Bettenberg plans to retire in August and is looking for a replacement.
For the reservation to become a reality, Bettenberg said, it would have to be part of a broad "basinwide" agreement that would bring balance to the water issues. Like Foreman, he said he wouldn't give a timeline for a possible restored reservation.
Reservation issue wrecks agreement
One attempt to strike an agreement between the Tribes ad agricultural interests throughout the Upper Klamath Basin came from an informal group assembled by Jim Root and Kurt Thomas, leaders of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust, a non-profit conservation organization that acquires federal funds to pay ranchers in the Wood River Valley not to irrigate. The group of about 18 met in the latter part of 2003.
Working in a room at the Shilo Inn in Klamath Falls, the group drafted a 12-point plan for striking a balance among water users that included a provision for restoring lands to the Tribes. That provision proved to be the end of the group, as word that a land return was on the table prompted the organization of a group opposed to the establishment of a restored reservation.
Although the group formed by Root and Thomas has stopped meeting, the group that formed to oppose its work - called the Basin Alliance to Save the Winema and Fremont National Forests - is still organized. Made up of small landowners, Upper Basin water users, forest recreationalists and others, the group is ready to publicly oppose any proposals the Tribes have concerning a restored reservation.
"I think the possibility is always there - politics and money are always there," said Lynn Bayona, spokesman for the Basin Alliance.
Jerry Anderson, one of the Basin Alliance's 12-board members, owns a plot of land that could be surrounded by reservation land.
"If they got the reservation, there would be no way to get to it without a helicopter," Anderson said.
Despite assurances by tribal leaders that public access would continue on the reservation similar to how it is on national forests, Anderson and other members of the Basin Alliance are concerned the tribal government could change its mind later.
Alliance board members say the group is opposed to the Tribes' getting a new reservation because of the possible infringement of property rights for people who own land near and around it. They call it a "land grab."
In the meantime, other developments make the water issue ever more complicated.
Irrigators are hoping the U.S. Congress will change the Endangered Species Act, which would ease restrictions on water in the Basin; the Tribes are seeking $1 billion in damages from PacifiCorp because of the loss of salmon runs cutoff by a hydroelectric project on the Klamath River; and other groups are getting more involved with their own litigation and politics.
"It seems to me that we went past a time when people would consider an agreement," Root said.
Reservation part of revival?
Tribal leaders say a new reservation is key to their economic revival and the enhancement of the resources they say they depend on, from deer and fish to water and trees. But that doesn't mean the federal government would stop covering the costs of their health, education and other social services. Foreman said the federal government promised to provide such services forever in exchange for the 20 million acres of land the three tribes gave up in 1864.
So, those services would continue even with a restored 730,000-acre reservation.
Foreman said the Tribes are confident they will get the land back. In December 2003 they issued a forest management plan, outlining what they would do with the forest.
The 100-year plan would create open stands of mature ponderosa pine and restore wildlife habitat, according to the Tribes. Critics have said the plan is more of one to make money from selling timber than one aimed at restoring the forest.
"They want that timber, that's the only reason they want that land back - to make money," said Bob Valladao, who ranches on former reservation land near Bly.
But the Tribes rebuff those claims.
"It's not going to make any money for the first three decades. We've got to start the treatments," Foreman said.
In their management plan, the Tribes said they should not only get forest land, but the buildings and vehicles used by the federal government on the national forests and the federal payroll of $7 million to $8 million to operate the forests.
Foreman said the Tribes should get the federal funding so they can manage the forests with the access the public wants and politicians have said is necessary before Congress would restore reservation lands.
"Certainly, if you are going to put that kind of requirement on it, then you shouldn't require us to pay for it," Foreman said.
Critics don't like the idea of the government giving the Tribes the land back. They said the Tribes were already paid for it.
"If they want the land back, and if they want the timber back, they are going to give something up," Valladao said.
Leaders of the Basin Alliance also say the Tribes are asking for land they already sold, as well as other things to which they're not entitled. The debate about the reservation has become a battle of interpretation of history, with both sides finding testimony and archived documents to support their contention.
In research for the ongoing adjudication of Klamath Basin water, Ed Bartell, president of the Sprague River Water Users Association, has combed through boxes of federal and tribal records about termination at the National Archives and Records Administration in Seattle. He said he spent more than a week at the archive center, going through thousands of documents.
Documents include: a 1915 Tribal letter to the Interior Department asking for the federal government to sell and dispose of all the timber on the reservation; General Council meeting notes from the 1940s and '50s including testimony from Wade Crawford and Boyd Jackson, two tribal leaders whose debate about how to end the paternal relationship between the federal government and the Tribes led to termination; and a 1950 bill outlining how members could withdraw from the Tribe and take a share of the reservation either in land or cash drafted by the tribal leaders.
"The records clearly show that people wanted that ability to sell, and chose to sell," Bartell said.
His compilation of documents and research has become the ammunition behind many of the Basin Alliance's arguments.
"We don't speculate about things. We have proof of what it is," Bayona said. "We are double-checking everything and making sure things are right."
Foreman said the people in opposition of the Tribes getting a reservation again are picking and choosing their documents. "I was here, I lived through this - I'm not picking and choosing," Foreman said.
Tribal leaders say members of the tribes were confused, and didn't understand their options. And they, too, have documents, records and research to back their stance.
Giving their reasons
During the winter of 2003-04, the Tribes held a series of three meetings in Beatty, Chiloquin and Klamath Falls to talk about why they wanted a reservation again and to highlight parts of their management plan.
At the meetings, members of the Basin Alliance and others raised points of concern that are still being debated. They include:
Bayona said the debate should be of interest to people in and out of the Basin.
"If you are a United States citizen, you've got a stake in this because that is national land," Bayona said.
Chuck Kimbol, a former tribal chairman, said the Tribes would restore a forest left in disarray by the management of the federal government, and the restored reservation would be a key piece to a lasting solution to the Basin water conflict.
"What gets me is, they are saying, 'If you get it, what will happen to it?' Well, you had it, look what happened to it," Kimbol said.
And the restored reservation would offer restitution.
Foreman said there have been a lot of wrongs since first contact between the white explorers and the American Indians who called the Klamath Basin home.
"What we are doing is offering a chance to right those wrongs ... We can pick up the pieces today, or we can haggle over the past- and it won't accomplish things by haggling," Foreman said.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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