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Tribes still seeking land, water solution

The Klamath Tribes are launching a new effort to regain thousands of acres of former reservation land, and have been quietly working with irrigators to strike a deal on water issues that could help pave the way for getting the land back.

Allen Foreman, chairman of the Chiloquin-based Tribes, announced Friday that the Tribes have been promoting a plan for the return of a portion of their homelands.

"As we move forward in this New Year and now that the United States Presidential Election process is final, the Klamath Tribes are once again renewing our efforts in this process," Foreman said in a press release issued Friday.

Details of the Tribes' plan have not been made public, but the Herald and News recently obtained a document being developed by the Tribes for presentation to federal officials.

The document titled "A plan for the return of the Klamath tribal homelands" states the Tribes want all of the federally owned land that lies within the boundaries of their reservation that was terminated in 1961. In all, that's 730,646 acres of land.

Most of the land is on the Fremont-Winema National Forests, while 40,646 acres is within the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.

Foreman on Friday confirmed both the acreage numbers and the fact that the Tribes want the Klamath Marsh.

"It's a vital part of the system," he said.

The Tribes' 10-member executive council has approved the 16-page plan, but it won't be released until an agreement with Basin irrigators is in place and it is approved by the Tribes' general membership, Foreman said. He said information in the document is still subject to change.

Land not restored

Congress restored federal recognition of the Klamath Tribes in 1986, but took no action with regard to the former reservation, which covered about 1.8 million acres when the tribe was terminated in 1954.

Regaining a significant portion of the former reservation has long been a goal of tribal leaders, and negotiations with the federal government started in earnest about two and a half years ago.

Bill Bettenberg, director of the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Policy Analysis, has been the point man in the federal government's talks with the Tribes. He said the talks have been on hold while the government waits for a resolution of a longstanding dispute over water issues in the Klamath Basin.

"We haven't been talking for a long time," he said last week.

An agreement on water issues could come in an ongoing set of talks facilitated by former state Sen. Steve Harper. The talks, which have received no publicity, between tribal leaders and certain irrigation officials is aimed at clearing up contested claims in the state of Oregon's adjudication process.

The tribes claim they have the highest priority to water in the Upper Klamath Basin, including water in Upper Klamath Lake, which serves as the primary irrigation reservoir for about 180,000 acres of farmland in the Klamath Reclamation Project.

Talks between tribal leaders and irrigators have been going on since the middle of last summer, Harper said. He would not say who has been participating in the meetings.

The parties "might be close on some of the major issues," Harper added.

Harper said land restoration for the Tribes is not a topic at the meetings.

Adjudication delayed

Started in 1975, the adjudication process that will determine who has the highest claim on water rights was delayed by legal issues until 1996. The Oregon Department of Water Resources then started the process in earnest.

Water users in the Basin filed about 700 claims, which then drew more than 5,600 contests, said Reed Marbut, who has been involved with the adjudication process for the state for decades.

He said more than 85 percent of the contests have been settled, but the most difficult remain. He said it is hard to estimate how much longer the process will take because it depends on when the claims get settled. At the present rate it will probably take about three years, he added.

"There are a lot of parties here," he said.

If irrigators and the Tribes reached a settlement, the adjudication process could be finished in a shorter period of time and water users would know how much water they are entitled to, said Roger Nicholson, a Fort Klamath rancher.

"I think everyone is eager to find a solution and to have a whole lot of healing," Nicholson said.

Ed Bartell, a Sprague River valley rancher, said Harper is providing a forum for parties at odds in the adjudication to come to terms.

"He's just helping mediate the disputes in the adjudication, trying to resolve contests in the adjudication," he said.

Foreman said irrigators from the Klamath Reclamation Project and from the watershed above Upper Klamath Lake have been at the meetings with the Tribes.

"We have been meeting with the water user groups continuously, and this consultation process will continue as long as necessary," Foreman said.

The draft document obtained by the Herald and News also includes a letter written to "the officials and agents of the government of the United States," signed by Foreman and dated Dec. 1, 2004. In the letter the Tribes make reference to a possible water agreement.

In the past the Tribes have offered to forego exercising their senior water rights in exchange for local support for restoration of reservation lands.

"Even though we were subjected to a political process through the state adjudication in which the tribal position was weakened, The Klamath Tribes have carried out their end of the agreement by agreeing to refrain from exercising their senior water rights," the letter says.

Foreman said the Tribes have avoided publicity about the meetings with irrigators out of fear the extra attention could stall the talks before an agreement is reached.

"It's kind of a ticklish situation," Foreman said. "... We certainly could go back to square one."

Reasons listed

In the draft document, the Tribes outline several reasons why they believe they are entitled to a return of the land:

  • The termination of the Tribes and the forced sale of the reservation was neither legal nor moral, so the Treaty of 1864, which established the reservation, should still be in effect.
  • The return would reduce the Tribes' dependence on the federal government.
  • The 1986 Restoration Act included the language: "all things are restored as they were prior to termination.

The document also says various government and congressional representatives have indicated that "if we were to arrive at a mutually acceptable negotiated water settlement with other water users in the Klamath Basin then our request for a land return would be considered."

In the packet, the Tribes explain they would like to have the Oregon congressional delegation request the transfer of the land to the Tribes and an endorsement from the White House.

The land transfer would compensate the Tribes for what they have lost by not having a reservation, according to the packet. By the Tribes' account, that includes the loss of timber, fisheries and hunting.

The transfer of land would take about seven years, according to the document. The Tribes would take over the buildings and budget of the federal agencies that now manage the lands that would be transferred.

"I can just hope it will happen sooner rather than later. I don't have any clues when it would actually come together," Foreman said.

 

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Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific


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