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Tribal land plan clouds dam deal

A proposal to restore Klamath reservation territory threatens an agreement for setting free the Klamath River
Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian  January 20, 2008

KLAMATH FALLS -- The Klamath Tribes' proposal to rebuild its lost reservation with federal money is stirring old animosities here and threatening to upset a hard-fought agreement to tear down four Klamath River dams.

The so-called settlement group of 26 government agencies, farmers, tribes, fishermen and conservationists Tuesday announced a proposal to bring competing interests together to remove the dams.

The dams, owned by Portland-based PacifiCorp, have no fish ladders on the lowest three and are widely blamed for destroying salmon runs in the river and in the Pacific Ocean.

In the proposal to remove the dams are sweeteners for various interest groups to get them to cooperate. They range from guaranteed irrigation water for farmers to money for Native American tribes.

Under the new strategy, the agreement supports the tribes' request for $21 million from Congress over the next four years to buy 90,000 acres of private forestland. That amounts to about 2 percent of the $1 billion estimated cost of the Klamath Basin settlement.

The only reference in the 241-page settlement proposal to re-establishing the reservation is Section 35.2 on Page 138, a brief mention of what it calls the Mazama Project.

Restoring the reservation is a hot-button issue in Klamath County. With each new struggle in the basin, where farms go back generations and tribal lore to time immemorial, each new argument recalls past prejudices.

The tribal land proposal is no different.

On a frigid Thursday night, about 50 people stood outside the Klamath County courthouse on Main Street holding placards protesting the tribes' land deal and other portions of the agreement. At a three-hour meeting of the county's Natural Resource Advisory Committee that followed, Edward Bartell of the Klamath Off-Project Water Users Association urged the committee to reject the settlement.

"The way this has worked out is you stab everyone in the back and the last one standing has a settlement," Bartell said.

The land in question is a 25-mile-long wedge of lodgepole and ponderosa pine straddling U.S. 97 north of Klamath Falls and covering the northwest corner of the tribes' former reservation.

More than 50 years ago under a federal policy called termination, members of the Klamath Tribes got cash payments and their reservation was converted into the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Many of the 3,500 tribal members today contend they were swindled, but others in the basin say the Native Americans got a fair price and aren't entitled to federal money to help them recover their lost land.

The tribes recently shelved a push to revert 690,000 acres of the national forest to tribal ownership. The plan was opposed by a local group worried about losing access to public lands as well as national environmental groups that feared stepped up logging in the pine lands.

Some of the same voices that fought the return of the national forest to tribal ownership now speak out against the Mazama forest purchase.

"They sold it and now we're going to buy it and give it back to them?" said Glenn Howard of the Klamath Basin Alliance, a group of private landowners.

The parcel contemplated for the reservation is part of 500,000 acres of Northwest timberland broken up after Crown Pacific declared bankruptcy in 2003. It also includes a shutdown stud mill the tribes hope to use.

"We're trying to find a valuation that works for both sides, as we'd really like to see the tribes have this property," said Greg Lane, chief operating officer of Fidelity National Timber Resources, a subsidiary of Florida-based Fidelity National Financial, which purchased controlling interest in Crown's former holdings in 2006.

The tribes see the forest property as a cornerstone to reconstituting its resource-based economy and helping ensure eventual tribal self-sufficiency.

"We want to get as much of the reservation as we possibly can, and use it obviously for tribal members but also the community," tribal Chairman Joseph Kirk said in an interview.

The agreement also envisions fulfilling the tribes' desire to restore salmon runs to tributaries of Upper Klamath Lake.

In return, farmers who are part of the federal Klamath Project will get predictable allocations of water during irrigation season, forestalling, they hope, a basinwide crisis like the one that erupted in 2001. And the tribes promise to back off on using the Endangered Species Act as a weapon against irrigators.

But before any part of the agreement can be enacted it must be approved by the tribes, Klamath County commissioners and others. Perhaps most dauntingly the deal is contingent on PacifiCorp agreeing to decommission its four hydroelectric dams on the lower Klamath River. The Portland-based utility was not party to the agreement and hasn't said whether it will go along.

Now there are worries the attempt to get a new reservation could destroy more than two years of tense negotiations.

"It took 21/2 years to build this, and it seems like we're trying to tear it down in 48 hours," said Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents irrigators on the 240,000-acre federal Klamath Project in southern Oregon and northern California.

Matthew Preusch: 541-382-2006; preusch@bendbroadband.com 

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