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Back on the table

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Smith says the Klamath Tribes will have to give up something if they want to get a reservation again.

Published Feb. 15, 2004

Former representative says the U.S. should get something in return for forest lands


MEDFORD - When Bob Smith was a U.S. representative trying to help the tribal members re-establish the Klamath Tribes, they wanted a reservation as part of the deal.

Smith said no.

"I didn't think that would be fair to taxpayers," he said. "First of all, (the Tribes) sold that land."

Smith is a Republican who served for 14 out of 16 years from 1982 to 1998. In an interview last week, he said the Tribes wanted a reservation in a bill he was getting ready to take to Washington, D.C. in the mid-'80s.
Chuck Kimbol, former Klamath Tribes chairman and current member of the Tribes Land and Water Commission, says the Tribes need a reservation again to be economically independent.

In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed the bill, sans land request, and the Tribes were officially a federally recognized tribe again.

Now the possibility of a re-established reservation is back on the table.

Tribal leaders have proposed the return of about 690,000 acres of national forest land, all of the Winema and some of the Fremont national forests.

Tribal leaders have been meeting with stakeholders in Basin water issues about a wide-ranging settlement that could include the return of a reservation.

Smith said the federal government shouldn't give the land back unless it gets something in return.

"To me, the issue hasn't changed," Smith said.

Chuck Kimbol, tribal chairman during the restoration negotiations, said Smith backed away from putting language about land in the bill because he didn't want to face any controversy.

"He was all right with (restoration) as long as we didn't mention land," he said.

But, Kimbol said, the bill did have the potential for a reservation because it called for an "economic self-sufficiency" plan.

That plan was completed in 2000, and the Tribes included the re-establishment of a reservation as a requirement of economic independence.

The Tribes' original reservation was abolished after the passing of Public Law 587 by the U.S. Congress in 1954, which terminated the Klamath Tribes. After that, tribal members had two choices: Take a payment as their share of the reservation or become "remaining members," with their shares held in trust by U.S. Bank.

Several years later, members who voted to withdraw from the tribes were paid by the government for their shares of the reservation. In the 1970s, the trust was dissolved, and those who voted to be remaining members got payments.

Allen Foreman, current tribal chairman, has been leading the Tribes' talks with the government and with stakeholder groups about the possibility of a new reservation.

Although he says the members of the Tribes were paid for the land, Foreman said they weren't paid enough because of low appraisals and the value of the timber not being taken into account.

"We weren't paid fair market value, by anyone's standards," he said.

Kimbol said the scientists contracted by the Tribes estimate it will take $1 billion to revive the forests the Tribes want back. The tribes believe that they're better positioned to restore suckers and deer, and they have put together a forest management plan, outlining what they would do with the forests if they got them back.

But the plan has done little to answer the questions or calm the concerns of people who live, work and do recreation in or near the forests. Joining together in a group called the Basin Alliance to Save the Winema and Fremont Forests, many have gathered to protest outside the stakeholder meetings at the Shilo Inn.

Foreman said the reservation is just once piece of a larger package that could bring a solution to the Basin's ongoing water issues.

Other points in the plan include improved government management of wetlands and refuges, developing new water via long-term leases above Upper Klamath Lake and developing new water through storage.

Holding up the development of the plan has been the issue of water balance.

Responding to Smith's idea that the government shouldn't give up the forest land without getting something in exchange, Foreman said the Tribes would be willing to purchase the land, but they would have to take out a major loan to do so and there wouldn't be the water benefits to the rest of the Basin.

"It's important to us because it is our homeland," Foreman said. "It's important for the future of the Tribes and the future of the Basin."

Any kind of agreement to re-establish a reservation will need support from Klamath County, Oregon's congressional delegation, the Bush administration and other officials.

And Foreman said the Tribes have the ears of those who matter.

"We got the attention of the White House, we got the attention of federal officials and we got the attention of the state," he said.

But, he said he doesn't think that attention will last long if the stakeholder group doesn't come to an agreement on water balance and other issues soon. Foreman said he thinks there is a window of about three months to get a deal done.

Foreman also faces re-election in about two months.

Smith said that for the Tribes to convince officials that they are not giving away public land for nothing there will have to be reassurances that the Tribes will follow through on a water agreement.

And figuring out how to hold the Tribes, who have sovereign status, accountable could make crafting such an agreement difficult, he said.

Smith said he agrees with the Tribes when they say they could manage the land better than the federal government has managed it of late.

"But that doesn't justify their re-establishment of the reservation," he said.

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