Land deal returns slice of Klamath tribal homeland
A landmark agreement to be announced Thursday will return to the Klamath Tribes about 90,000 acres of their one-time southern Oregon reservation that the federal government sliced up and sold off more than 50 years ago.
The government's strategy at the time was to integrate the tribes into mainstream society. But the opposite happened: The once-prosperous tribes descended into poverty, with many members giving up school and dying alcohol-related deaths.
The land deal scheduled for unveiling Thursday restores only a small slice of the tribes' former 2.5-million-acre reservation. But it's one of the largest pieces of land to be returned to Northwest tribes that once controlled it. And it gives tribal members renewed control over some of their historic resources -- and their destiny.
Careful management of the forested land, known as the Mazama Tract, also promises to improve the quality and quantity of water flowing off the land and into the Klamath Basin, where water is often in short supply and has been the source of pitched, sometimes emotional, struggles.
"There're a lot of contributions this property can bring to the tribes and the Klamath Basin," said Jeff Mitchell, a tribal councilman who helped develop the agreement.
The Trust for Public Land brokered the land agreement between the tribes and Cascade Timberlands, a timber company controlled by Fidelity National Financial. The next step will be for the tribes to purchase the land at an undisclosed price that must be confirmed by an appraisal.
The tribes will get $21 million in federal funds toward the purchase through a previously negotiated deal to resolve water and other disputes across the Klamath region. Congress must allocate the funds, but Chuck Sams of the Trust for Public Land said he's confident lawmakers and the new administration will do so.
The Trust for Public Land will raise any additional money needed for the purchase, he said.
Returning the land to the tribes assures its
conservation and will also "right a historic wrong," said
Nelson Mathews, Northwest program director for the trust.
The Klamath Tribes -- composed of the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin -- once occupied a 23 million-acre homeland, but the U.S. government eventually limited the tribes to a reservation about one-tenth the size. Even then, the tribes were largely self-sufficient, bringing in revenue from reservation timber, ranching and farming.
They were so successful, the tribes were considered among the wealthiest in the nation, providing jobs, medical care, land and loans to members.
Then Congress in 1953 adopted a policy of "termination," designed to fold tribal members into society. The government no longer officially recognized the tribes and liquidated their reservation, selling off lucrative parcels and turning the rest into national forest.
In the years that followed, much of the tribal community disintegrated into poverty and despair. More than half of Klamath members died before they were 40, according to information provided by the Trust for Public Land.
The government originally sold the Mazama Tract to Crown Zellerbach, a paper company, which then sold it to the timber company Crown Pacific. Crown Pacific went bankrupt, and Cascade Timberlands acquired the controlling share.
Cascade Timberlands had planned to auction off the land but instead began talking with the Klamath Tribes and the land trust, said Greg Lane, chief operating officer at Fidelity National Timber Resources, which controls Cascade Timberlands.
Selling the land to the tribes struck the company as an ideal solution, he said.
"They've been working hard for a very long time to try to regain some of their ancestral land, and we tried to come up with a transaction that would allow that to happen," Lane said. "I'm very, very impressed with how they've approached this."
Ever since the government sold the land, it has carried a restriction that the forest must be managed sustainably. Much of the forest is now overcrowded lodgepole pine at high risk of severe wildfires, Mitchell said.
The tribes will focus on restoring it to a healthy, productive forest, he said. They also hope to develop a "green energy park" centered around a biomass energy facility that can generate power by burning wood waste or other material such as garbage.
The power would support businesses that make use of sustainably harvested timber. "The vision is that we bring in a load of logs and every bit of it is used someplace," he said.
The benefits of tribal management of the Mazama Tract will extend beyond the tribe itself, Mitchell predicted.
"It will start healing those wounds (from termination) and start bringing this community and the tribes back together again," he said.
-- Michael Milstein; firstname.lastname@example.org