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Federal government rejects tribal land transfer
The Bush administration said Tuesday that it cannot support a bill to transfer nearly 63,000 acres of national forest land to three tribes on the central Oregon Coast.
The proposal to restore a small portion of ancestral territory to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians involves too much land, said Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for natural resources and environment.
"The department would not support a land transfer from the Siuslaw National Forest of the magnitude envisioned in this bill," Rey told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
The bill would set a precedent for proposals to transfer large amounts of land from national forests to tribes "without offsetting national benefits," Rey said.
The public benefits include the tribes' plans to protect cultural resources and restore old growth forests and wildlife habitat, said the bill's author, U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. The tribes also hope to generate up to $1.1 million a year in revenue through commercial thinning and other logging projects on the land, which represents 10 percent of the Siuslaw forest.
"The proof is in the forest," Smith said. "Native people in their bones feel a stewardship of the land that frankly is more important than a law."
Others voiced support for the bill at its first Senate hearing. John Gordon, chairman of Interforest LLC, a sustainable forestry consulting firm, said Indian tribes have a strong record of land stewardship in the face of great difficulties.
"The tribes live with the consequences of their forest management decision in ways that few other groups do," said Gordon, the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. "All values, including cultural and spiritual ones, are thus incorporated into management plans and actions."
The coastal tribes lost their land 150 years ago and then lost government recognition 50 years ago. Congress restored recognition 20 years ago, but without giving the tribes a land base.
Tribal leaders have been working since 1997 on a plan to regain a fraction of the 1.6 million acres that the government acknowledges the tribes once inhabited.
The 62,865-acre proposal, down from an earlier version at about 100,000 acres, would transfer the land to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to be held in trust for the tribes' 720 members.
The bill would "restore a small but very significant portion of our homeland," said Cheryl Hoile, vice chairwoman of the tribes. "We cannot proceed without your active support and passage of this critical legislation."
The proposal is supported by a wide array of interests, Hoile said, from the National Congress of American Indians to the Douglas, Lane and Coos county commissioners; the timber industry; and several environmental groups, including the Pacific Rivers Council and Cascadia Wildlands Project.
The Oregon Natural Resources Council is leading a coalition of groups opposed to the bill.
Jay Ward, the group's conservation director, told the committee that the transfer would remove federal environmental protections for the land and could undermine efforts to improve the survival of threatened and endangered species, including coho salmon, spotted owls and marbled murrelets.
Congress should address past injustices toward the tribes, Ward said, but Smith's bill isn't the solution.
"We just don't believe the rest of the American people should be deprived of 63,000 acres of national forest land to right that wrong," he said.
Smith will continue to work with all parties on a compromise bill, spokesman Chris Matthews said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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