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Klamath Tribes will unveil vision for reclaiming lands

A blueprint due today will include concessions on sovereign immunity on 690,000 acres in Southern Oregon



If the Klamath Tribes win back a swath of Southern Oregon the size of Rhode Island, they will grant the public continued access to the ponderosa pine forests and pledge to log only so much as to keep the forests healthy and resistant to fire.

The Klamath Tribes today will unveil a blueprint, drawn by two of the region's leading foresters, outlining how they would manage 690,000 acres of the Winema and Fremont national forests if they once again become their reservation.

Tribal leaders Monday said they hoped to dispel local fears that a tribal takeover of the forestlands could lead to curtailed access and profit-driven logging.

"It translates the vision the tribes have to show the world we've got the real capabilities to manage this land that's so important to us," said Tribal Chairman Allen Foreman.

The 116-page plan centers on aggressively thinning crowded timber that experts say is extremely prone to destructive wildfires and leaves little room for wildlife.

"You've got to take some action, otherwise you're going to lose the big trees, you're going to lose the wildlife habitat, you're going to lose the whole works," said Jerry Franklin, a professor at the University of Washington who co-authored the plan with Norman Johnson, an Oregon State University professor.

The tribes are in discussions with the U.S. Interior Department for return of the lands in Southern Oregon. It would be one of the largest handovers of federal land to a Native American tribe and is seen as part of a comprehensive package that aims to resolve the Klamath Basin's emotional water struggles.

The tribes pledge to manage the forests for tribal and public use. The public would have continued access to the land with no fees beyond what the U.S. Forest Service now charges.

In a new approach, the tribes also agree to waive their sovereign immunity as a Native American nation and give the public a voice in their activities. Tribal decisions would be open to public comment and could be challenged through written appeals or in tribal court, similar to federal land decisions.

Foreman said the tribes went through "a lot of agonizing hours of internal discussion" before offering that option. But they concluded that they must respect the concerns of others if they want others to respect theirs, he said.

"We want to be able to establish that relationship with the local community," he said.

Heightened concerns

But closed public meetings between tribal leaders and local irrigators have heightened concerns about the possible return of lands to the tribes. Calvin Hunt of Klamath Falls, who is organizing a petition drive against such a land transfer, said the new forest plan provides little reassurance.

"People are anxious, they're upset because these lands are important to all of us," he said. "We don't know if they're going to change their mind tomorrow and cut everyone out."

Sue Ellen Wooldridge, deputy chief of staff to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, said the new forest plan should give the community a clear picture of what the tribes hope to do with the land if they acquire it.

"I hope the dialogue can center on that rather than people's worst fears of what might happen," she said.

The proposed return of public land has fractured the conservation community. The Oregon Natural Resources Council leads a coalition that contends it would erode the public's voice in land management. But others, such as WaterWatch of Oregon, support it.

The tribes held a reservation of about 880,000 acres when the government decided in 1954 they were ready for assimilation into white society. In an approach that remains the subject of confusion and bitter feelings, Congress liquidated their land and gave most tribal members one-time cash payments.

Much of the tribal community disintegrated into poverty in the years that followed.

Tribal rights intact

While the Forest Service took over most of the acreage, the tribes retained hunting, fishing and gathering rights. Federal courts have held that the rights include the water needed to support fish and wildlife populations.

The water rights have given the tribes considerable clout in a basin gripped by drought in recent years. In 2001, drought combined with protections for endangered species to leave farmers in the Klamath Project with little irrigation water.

The tribes and irrigators hope to assemble a package by spring that would include the return of land to the tribes and assurances of reliable water for farmers, Foreman said. It may call for the government to turn over the Klamath Project to local farmers, possibly freeing it from endangered species burdens.

The package then would go to Congress, which must authorize any transfer of federal land and facilities.

All residents of the Klamath Basin would benefit from tribal control of the former reservation lands, Foreman said. The tribes have outlined a series of management principles that emphasize healthy fish and wildlife populations vital to tribal culture.

The populations have declined during decades of management by fractured state and federal agencies.

"A better place"

"The purpose of this plan is to make a better place for people who want to come and use the land," Foreman said. "I'd like to be able to see fishermen catch trophy fish and hunters get trophy deer. That would mean it's working."

The only logging in the early decades of the plan would be designed to thin flammable forests that have become clogged from decades of fire suppression. The tribes would seek an estimated $7 million to $9 million in federal funding for forest management.

Top foresters from around the region who reviewed the Klamath blueprint said it is more functional and practical than the plans that govern federal forests. By acting swiftly to reduce fire danger, it is more likely to protect large, old trees most important to wildlife and to the resiliency of the forest.

"It sets a new standard in terms of a restoration strategy for drier ponderosa forests," said Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. "It reflects really the most up-to-date understanding of how forests function."

The new plan will be posted at www.klamathtribes.org by the end of the week and is open to public comment through Jan. 30.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com


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