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Questions swim around Tribes' fish claims


Published May 14, 2004


A $1 billion lawsuit filed against PacifiCorp by Native Americans left lingering questions in the Klamath Basin this week.

Who really filed the claims?

And who could be next to have a claim filed against them?

The "Klamath Tribes of Oregon" were listed first among several plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Portland.

But the Chiloquin-based Tribes have made no announcement about the suit, and reports have circulated that the tribal government does not support the claim.

Tribal officials deferred comment to Tribal Council Chairman Allen Foreman, who didn't respond to calls from the Herald and News this week.

Other plaintiffs in the suit include tribal members Miller Anderson, Joseph Hobbs, Catherine Wiser-Gonzalez, Robert Anderson, Joseph Kirk, Orin Kirk, Leonard Norris Jr., Philip Tupper, Robert Bojorcas , as well as the Klamath Claims Committee, of which they are members.

The 10-member Klamath Claims Committee represents tribal members, and their heirs, who were on the roll of the Klamath Tribe when it was terminated by the federal government in 1954.

Bojorcas said the Claims Committee can speak for the Tribes.

"We are members of the Tribe. We are the Tribe - how do you separate that?" said Bojorcas, chairman of the Claims Committee.

Dan Israel, the Denver-based lawyer who filed the claims, said the "Klamath Tribes of Oregon" represents the Klamath Tribes government.

Bojorcas, who joined the Claims Committee in 1976 and has been its chairman for the last 15 years, said the salmon claims aren't the first to be filed by the committee. Since the termination of the Tribes, the committee has been filing claims and has been successful in getting $60 million in compensation, he said.

The claims committee has a litigation fund with which to pursue claims. Members of the committee would not say how much they have in their coffers.

In the claim against PacifiCorp, plaintiffs want a judge to:

n Find that PacifiCorp and its predecessor, the California Oregon Power Company, knowingly and recklessly destroyed the plaintiffs' federal treaty rights to consume, barter and maintain a way of life that relied on salmon.

n Find the company liable for compensatory and punitive damages, including interest, to the plaintiffs and other individual Tribal members in an amount in excess of $1 billion.

PacifiCorp spokesman Jon Coney said the company doesn't comment on litigation.

PacifiCorp has a 151-megawatt hydroelectric project that has four hydroelectric dams and other small structures. The dams were put in between 1908 and 1962 by the California Oregon Power Company.

Israel said those who developed the power dams on the Klamath River knew they cut off salmon from the Klamath Basin, but put the dams in anyway.

"That's why the damages are high - this was intentional and reckless," he said.

Before the dams went in, the Klamath River was the third-leading producer of anadromous fish, behind the Columbia and the Sacramento, said Roger Smith, a fisheries biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But he said the dams aren't the only thing that have changed the ecosystem around the river. There also has been the addition of roads and bridges, logging of trees and other changes.

The claims are to make up for the past and return salmon to the Basin in the future, Bojorcas said.

"This has been a dream of many of our elders who have passed and many of our members today - and that's to get fish restored," he said. "It's not all about money, it is about restoring salmon to the rivers."

The claims against PacifiCorp have left many groups in the Basin - from irrigation districts to water user groups and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation - wondering if they are next.

This week's lawsuit did not come without warning.

As part of PacifiCorp's dam relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Israel filed requests for more studies by the power company on the behalf of the Klamath Tribes.

His request included a reference to "contaminated agriculture return flows."

The request continued, "... the Tribes are preparing significant damage claims against those entities which have contributed to the destruction of the fishery."

Who those other entities are it doesn't say, but the request continued, "Even as they pursue past damages and future restoration, the Tribes will to use their best efforts in these FERC proceedings and before Congress to simultaneously minimize adverse impacts to their neighboring irrigators."

Israel said irrigators need to install more efficient systems, but the Tribes' want to work with them to get that done.

"I don't think going around and trying to file lawsuits against irrigators makes sense," he said.

Bojorcas said the committee supports the Tribes government, and has filed the claims for the good of the tribes, not for the individual gain of committee members.


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