Announced by letter to tribal membership this week, Western Rivers Conservancy has an option to purchase the timberlands in two phases, then transfer it to the tribe. Some of the lands are in the tribe's sacred territory in the Blue Creek area and could be managed as a tribal park, while a little less than half of the property may be run as a community forest.
The tribe's constitution calls for the acquisition of an adequate land base for the tribe, whose reservation is a strip a mile wide along the Klamath River from the ocean to Weitchpec. Most of that land is owned by Green Diamond and other private interests.
An appraisal is expected by year's end, and a selling price would remain confidential. But Yurok policy analyst Troy Fletcher said some of the lands -- like the salmon haven of Blue Creek -- cannot be assessed at a simply monetary level.
”In terms of the value to the tribe,” Fletcher said, “it's invaluable.”
Exactly how the land will be managed will have to go before the tribe's nearly 5,000 members, Fletcher said, who will have an opportunity to consider a range of uses that preserve cultural values and resources.
Discussions about a possible acquisition have been going on for some 15 years. Both the tribe's constitution and the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act provide for expansion of the Yurok's land base. The deal would give the Yurok Tribe an additional 74 square miles of land -- east and north of the Klamath River -- partially comparable to the Hoopa Tribe's 144-square mile timber-rich reservation, which was split off from the Yurok strip.
Green Diamond insists that even though the purchase would reduce its California lands by 11 percent -- leaving it with 380,000 acres -- it fits into the company's increasing focus on harvesting redwood. Green Diamond supplies its sister company California Redwood Co. with logs to make lumber.
”We're still going to be able to provide our mills with the logs that they need,” said Green Diamond Timberlands Investments Manager Dan Opalach.
Green Diamond is currently logging on some of the land in question, and under the agreement will be allowed to finish harvesting on existing timber plans. It will not file any new logging plans under the arrangement. Fletcher said he anticipates that some of the logs the tribe may end up cutting will be sold to Green Diamond.
The tribe would manage the timberland it buys under standards equal to or stricter than Green Diamond's recently signed aquatic habitat conservation plan, Fletcher said, which aims to protect a variety of fish and amphibians, while providing assurances for operations.
The Yurok Tribe owns around 13,000 acres now, some of which is outside the 58,000-acre reservation. About 6,000 acres are in tribal trust status. Of the land being acquired -- which butts up against the Six Rivers National Forest -- about 37,000 acres would be outside the current reservation. Seven thousand acres are in Del Norte County and 40,000 acres are in Humboldt County.
The Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act also calls for the U.S. Department of the Interior to work with the Yurok Tribe on the acquisition of land to expand the reservation. Fletcher said the arrangement fits the intent of the act, and that the tribe will be working with the department and Congress.
Ultimately, Fletcher said, the tribe will seek reservation status for the new land through existing U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs processes.
The tribe would pay taxes on the land until it is transferred into tribal trust status.
Fletcher said that the tribe and Western Rivers are pursuing private and foundation funds to pay the price of the land, and only after that effort is exhausted would it seek state and federal money.
The first half of the land would be bought within two years, including tracts around Weitchpec, Cappell and Pecwan, with the tribe managing the land to bring in revenue to help pay for the remainder of the property, 25,000 acres in Blue Creek.
The second part of the purchase would take place within four years.
Western Rivers President Phil Wallin said that is an ambitious but realistic time frame to broker the deal, which he anticipates could range from $50 to $100 million.
Wallin said that his organization brings real estate expertise and contacts that can help raise money to buy the land, which he believes will make the tribe an even stronger advocate of Klamath River restoration.
The group also has a vested interest in the Klamath River, and in Blue Creek, which Wallin described as a safety net for salmon while restoration -- and possibly dam removal -- stretches out over years.
”In the meantime, the salmon have got to have a sanctuary in times of low flows and warm water, and that's Blue Creek,” Wallin said.