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Klamath Tribes are seeing a brighter future

By JEFF BARNARD, AP Capital Press 12/21/2008

CHILOQUIN, Ore. (AP) - Standing in the shadows of a dilapidated lumber mill, Jeff Mitchell picked up a piece of firewood from the pile on the cold concrete floor and held it in the sunlight.

"This is the tribes' very first timber-based industry in over 50 years since termination," said Mitchell, a member of the tribal council of the Klamath Tribes. "Five years from now we're going to look back and say this is where it started."

The Klamath Tribes were one of the wealthiest in the nation in 1954 when Congress terminated their tribal status. Officially, the decision was supposed to assimilate Indian people into society, but tribes have long felt it was a grab of their valuable timber holdings.

The Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians, lumped together on a reservation after being driven from their native territories, lost nearly 900,000 acres - a parcel that eventually was sold off for private timberlands and ranches, turned into rural subdivisions, and incorporated into two national forests.

With the reservation and their identity as Indians gone, many tribal members sank into poverty and left their homeland.

But in 1986, the tribes won restoration of their tribal status.

Now, 22 years later, they are on the verge of buying back a piece of their old reservation: 90,000 acres of lodgepole pine known as the Mazama Tree Farm. They hope to revive the timber industry that once sustained them as part of a larger campaign to remove dams from the Klamath River to bring salmon back to their territories.

The Trust for Public Lands, a nonprofit land conservation organization, helped arrange an option for the Klamaths to buy the 90,000 acres from a holding company. The price has not been disclosed, but $21 million the tribes hope to get from the federal government is expected to cover the bulk of it. The Mazama is the biggest of 32 properties the trust is working to restore to Indian people.

It has been a long and bumpy road.

Mitchell grew up camping out with his dad at fire lookouts and guard stations, watching over the tribes' forests in the 1950s.

"There used to be plenty of work around here then," his dad, Ben Mitchell, said. "We never wanted for anything. Everything was here."

When he wasn't working for the tribal forestry program, Ben Mitchell was working for his brother-in-law's logging outfit, setting choker - wrapping the end of the steel cable around the log so it could be yarded up the hill to the landing - or hook tending on the landing where the logs were loaded onto trucks. When he wasn't working, he hunted and fished on forests and creeks now blocked off by subdivisions.

All that changed when the tribes lost the only home they'd ever known.

Tribal members were paid off from the sales, given checks for thousands of dollars, more money than many had ever seen. Some bought cars, others got drunk. A few, like Edison Chiloquin, a descendant of the chief for whom the town is named, refused to cash the checks and burned a sacred fire until the government gave him 580 acres back.

"We just didn't have sense," said Ben Mitchell. "Back then, everyone looked down upon him. But he was the only smart person in the bunch."

Since then, the tribes' hopes would surge and wane with each new development. Amid a water crisis, the Bush administration considered returning national forest lands that came from the reservation, but nothing came of it. Other private parcels came up for sale, but were out of the tribes' reach.

Still, they developed a formal plan for managing the forests they hoped to get back.

Then, three years ago, a strip of land from the northwestern corner of the old reservation came on the market following a timber company bankruptcy. Fidelity National Financial, primarily a title insurance company, holds a majority share in Cascade Timberlands, LLC, which now owns the 300,000-acre property. They are retaining some of the land but selling off the old Mazama Tree Farm.

Chiloquin Mayor Mark Cobb does not expect the tribes to ever get back the parts of their reservation that became the Winema and Fremont national forests - too many old resentments among local folks. But he thinks most folks in the area support the Mazama sale because it will mean jobs at a time when mills in Klamath Falls have been laying off.

The property straddles 26 miles of U.S. Highway 97 in northern Klamath County. When the tribes lost it, the lodgepole pine had little commercial value. But now it can be milled into posts and poles, 2-by-4 studs, and chips.

Drive through the forest and elk tracks come into view, along with weathered stumps dating to the days of tribal logging.

Standing on the high point of the Mazama Tree Farm, a volcanic cinder cone called Round Butte, Will Hatcher, the tribes' natural resources director, points out peaks on the crest of the Cascade Range and marshes where the Klamath people harvested water lily pods, ducks and fish.

The tribes have already bought an old lumber mill site with a railroad right of way in the middle of the property. They named it Giiwas Green Energy Park after their name for Crater Lake.

They have bought machinery that cuts and splits lodgepole pine logs and bundles them into plastic-wrapped packages of firewood to be sold at convenience stores. They plan to buy an 8-megawatt generator that runs off the gas drawn from composting wood wastes, particularly the trees and branches that will come from thinning the thick stands of lodgepole on the Mazama Tree Farm.

So far, the only hard evidence of a revived timber industry is several cords of firewood the tribes paid some of their members to cut and pile on the floor of the old mill, for sale later this winter.

Jeff Mitchell said once they own the Mazama Tree Farm, the Tribal Forests Protection Act of 2004 will give them greater influence over management of the neighboring national forest lands. They'd like to see more habitat restoration projects for fish and wildlife, and more thinning to reduce fire danger.

He acknowledges that the likelihood of getting the whole reservation back is small, but he remains hopeful.

"When the Klamath Tribes were their most prosperous, it was because of our land and forest, our ability to create jobs and a future," he said. "We can point to the past to see when that occurred. We are pointing to it now and saying with Mazama, we can move in that direction again."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.
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