Tribes are seeing a brighter future
AP Capital Press 12/21/2008
Ore. (AP) - Standing in the shadows of a dilapidated lumber
mill, Jeff Mitchell picked up a piece of firewood from the
pile on the cold concrete floor and held it in the sunlight.
"This is the tribes' very first timber-based industry in over
50 years since termination," said Mitchell, a member of the
tribal council of the Klamath Tribes. "Five years from now
we're going to look back and say this is where it started."
The Klamath Tribes were one of the wealthiest in the nation in
1954 when Congress terminated their tribal status. Officially,
the decision was supposed to assimilate Indian people into
society, but tribes have long felt it was a grab of their
valuable timber holdings.
The Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians, lumped
together on a reservation after being driven from their native
territories, lost nearly 900,000 acres - a parcel that
eventually was sold off for private timberlands and ranches,
turned into rural subdivisions, and incorporated into two
With the reservation and their identity as Indians gone, many
tribal members sank into poverty and left their homeland.
But in 1986, the tribes won restoration of their tribal
Now, 22 years later, they are on the verge of buying back a
piece of their old reservation: 90,000 acres of lodgepole pine
known as the Mazama Tree Farm. They hope to revive the timber
industry that once sustained them as part of a larger campaign
to remove dams from the Klamath River to bring salmon back to
The Trust for Public Lands, a nonprofit land conservation
organization, helped arrange an option for the Klamaths to buy
the 90,000 acres from a holding company. The price has not
been disclosed, but $21 million the tribes hope to get from
the federal government is expected to cover the bulk of it.
The Mazama is the biggest of 32 properties the trust is
working to restore to Indian people.
It has been a long and bumpy road.
Mitchell grew up camping out with his dad at fire lookouts and
guard stations, watching over the tribes' forests in the
"There used to be plenty of work around here then," his dad,
Ben Mitchell, said. "We never wanted for anything. Everything
When he wasn't working for the tribal forestry program, Ben
Mitchell was working for his brother-in-law's logging outfit,
setting choker - wrapping the end of the steel cable around
the log so it could be yarded up the hill to the landing - or
hook tending on the landing where the logs were loaded onto
trucks. When he wasn't working, he hunted and fished on
forests and creeks now blocked off by subdivisions.
All that changed when the tribes lost the only home they'd
Tribal members were paid off from the sales, given checks for
thousands of dollars, more money than many had ever seen. Some
bought cars, others got drunk. A few, like Edison Chiloquin, a
descendant of the chief for whom the town is named, refused to
cash the checks and burned a sacred fire until the government
gave him 580 acres back.
"We just didn't have sense," said Ben Mitchell. "Back then,
everyone looked down upon him. But he was the only smart
person in the bunch."
Since then, the tribes' hopes would surge and wane with each
new development. Amid a water crisis, the Bush administration
considered returning national forest lands that came from the
reservation, but nothing came of it. Other private parcels
came up for sale, but were out of the tribes' reach.
Still, they developed a formal plan for managing the forests
they hoped to get back.
Then, three years ago, a strip of land from the northwestern
corner of the old reservation came on the market following a
timber company bankruptcy. Fidelity National Financial,
primarily a title insurance company, holds a majority share in
Cascade Timberlands, LLC, which now owns the 300,000-acre
property. They are retaining some of the land but selling off
the old Mazama Tree Farm.
Chiloquin Mayor Mark Cobb does not expect the tribes to ever
get back the parts of their reservation that became the Winema
and Fremont national forests - too many old resentments among
local folks. But he thinks most folks in the area support the
Mazama sale because it will mean jobs at a time when mills in
Klamath Falls have been laying off.
The property straddles 26 miles of U.S. Highway 97 in northern
Klamath County. When the tribes lost it, the lodgepole pine
had little commercial value. But now it can be milled into
posts and poles, 2-by-4 studs, and chips.
Drive through the forest and elk tracks come into view, along
with weathered stumps dating to the days of tribal logging.
Standing on the high point of the Mazama Tree Farm, a volcanic
cinder cone called Round Butte, Will Hatcher, the tribes'
natural resources director, points out peaks on the crest of
the Cascade Range and marshes where the Klamath people
harvested water lily pods, ducks and fish.
The tribes have already bought an old lumber mill site with a
railroad right of way in the middle of the property. They
named it Giiwas Green Energy Park after their name for Crater
They have bought machinery that cuts and splits lodgepole pine
logs and bundles them into plastic-wrapped packages of
firewood to be sold at convenience stores. They plan to buy an
8-megawatt generator that runs off the gas drawn from
composting wood wastes, particularly the trees and branches
that will come from thinning the thick stands of lodgepole on
the Mazama Tree Farm.
So far, the only hard evidence of a revived timber industry is
several cords of firewood the tribes paid some of their
members to cut and pile on the floor of the old mill, for sale
later this winter.
Jeff Mitchell said once they own the Mazama Tree Farm, the
Tribal Forests Protection Act of 2004 will give them greater
influence over management of the neighboring national forest
lands. They'd like to see more habitat restoration projects
for fish and wildlife, and more thinning to reduce fire
He acknowledges that the likelihood of getting the whole
reservation back is small, but he remains hopeful.
"When the Klamath Tribes were their most prosperous, it was
because of our land and forest, our ability to create jobs and
a future," he said. "We can point to the past to see when that
occurred. We are pointing to it now and saying with Mazama, we
can move in that direction again."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.