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Klamath plan meets opposition

Conservation groups say a proposed land transfer
threatens old growth and wilderness

10/11/03, Michelle Cole, The Oregonian

Fearing a potential decline in wilderness preservation and stepped-up logging operations, 17 Northwest conservation groups this week opposed the transfer of national forest lands the size of Rhode Island to the Klamath Tribes.   
Instead, the groups argued for the federal government to purchase 400,000 acres of private lands to compensate the tribes and bring an end to the region's water battles.

But conservationists, led by the Oregon Natural Resources Council, found no support Friday among Klamath farmers and tribal leaders, who said any such plan would only bring more anger and division to the region.

The proposal comes as farmers and tribes, with the Bush administration's support, try to forge an agreement to assure farmers in the Klamath Project a predictable, if reduced, water supply and to restore fish and wildlife promised to the tribes under their 1864 treaty with the government.

"It's more chaos-making for the Klamath Basin," said Becky Hatfield Hyde, who operates a small cattle ranch with her husband near Beatty, Ore. "We are finally having some legitimate talks and trying to work some things out."

A key element in those talks involves the return to the tribes of more than 1,000 square miles within the Winema and Fremont national forests.

In a letter this week to U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith, conservationists argued that the national forest lands under discussion -- roughly 690,000 acres of former reservation land -- contain 47,000 acres of roadless areas suitable for wilderness designation and more than 136,000 acres of old-growth forest.

"We think the Klamath Tribes have been treated unjustly by the government and are deserving of remedy. Where we disagree is the nature of the remedy," Jay Ward, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, said Friday.

Ward said the American public ought to retain access to those lands as well as a voice over logging, recreation and other activities that might occur there.

The tribes, meanwhile, have had forestry experts from the University of Washington and Oregon State University draw a blueprint to help them restore an original ponderosa pine landscape through selective logging and plantings.

Although Ward commended the tribes for their "restoration vision," he said the federal law governing Indian forest lands mandates that those lands be developed for the benefit of the tribes.

"A different tribal council could decide, in the interest of providing an economic engine for their people, that logging old growth at a higher level or at any level is a path they choose to go down," Ward said.

The council and other conservation groups propose instead that Congress appoint a commission to determine just compensation for the value of reservation lands that once belonged to the Klamath Tribes. Congress then would pursue acquisition of private lands through either purchase or the federal power of eminent domain.

Efforts to reach Wyden or Smith were not successful Friday.

Jeff Mitchell, former chairman of the Klamath Tribes and a participant in the current talks with the Bush administration, said the conservationists have advanced "a terrible idea."

Given how the tribes lost their lands to the federal government, Mitchell said he "wouldn't want private landowners to feel like their property rights are going to be put at risk and terminated as well."

What's more, Mitchell said, there's no firm agreement at this point transferring national forest lands to the tribes. Should such a transfer occur, he said, the tribes plan to take care of their homelands.

"This is real unfortunate that we didn't have an opportunity to sit down with the ONRC prior to the release of this proposal to the public," he said. "They haven't given the tribes a fair opportunity to express to them or to the public the details of what the tribes' proposals are for the recreation of a tribal homeland."

The resources council was joined in its action by 16 other conservation groups, including Audubon Oregon, the Audubon Society of Portland, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; michellecole@news.oregonian.com

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