Published October 9, 2003


The federal government should use private lands - instead of Forest Service lands - to re-establish a reservation for the Klamath Indian Tribes, according to a proposal put forward Wednesday by the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

The proposal calls for the government to purchase lands or, when necessary, use eminent domain to acquire private lands within the boundary of the reservation as it existed in 1954, when the Klamath Tribes were terminated.

Homes and up to 40 acres of adjoining would be exempt from government acquisition.

Former tribal lands that became part of the national forest system should remain in public ownership, according to the plan developed by the Portland-based environmental group that has been active in Klamath Basin issues for years.

A spokesman for the ONRC said the proposal could provide a solution to ongoing disputes over water in the Klamath Basin.

Klamath Tribal Chairman Allen Foreman could not be reached for comment on the ONRC's proposal.

Former Chairman Jeff Mitchell said he wished the ONRC had consulted the Tribes before issuing the proposal.

"I just hope what we see isn't a tactic that is going to be divisive between the Tribes and the landowners up here," he said.

Talk of a deal in which the government would swap more than 600,000 acres of national forest land in exchange for the Klamath Tribes' senior water rights has been bandied about for more than a year.

The ONRC opposes such a trade because its members think the best way to protect land is to keep it in public ownership, said Jay Ward, ONRC conservation director.

"We think it would be a bad decision economically and ecologically," Ward said.

Jim McCarthy, ONRC policy analyst, said he doesn't see how the deal being talked about between the government and the Tribes would help the water issue in the Basin as a whole.

"They are knocking off one aspect and not addressing the central issue - how to meet all the competing wants on the Klamath River," he said.

Using the figure that one acre of timberland is worth $1,500, the ONRC estimates the value of the more than 600,000 acres of land that could be given to the Tribes to be about $1.5 billion.

Instead of replacing the reservation with public land, the ONRC wants the government to acquire more than 470,000 acres of private land and give that to the Tribes for a reservation.

The ONRC's proposal includes:

n Purchase of the private land within the boundary of the former reservation by the federal government. The lands would then be handed over to the Tribes. If landowners were unwilling to sell, the government would exercise eminent domain to acquire the land.

n A congressionally appointed commission would be set up to evaluate whether tribal members were justly compensated for the lands lost to termination.

n In exchange re-establishment of a reservation, the Tribes would waive future claims to other lands within the 1954 reservation boundary.

The Tribes have been talking with the government for more than two decades about a way to get the lands back, but talks between a Cabinet-level working group and tribal leaders started in earnest a year ago.

In a recent message to members of the Tribes, Foreman said a land deal is probably about a year away.

The Tribes' reservation, which had about a million acres, was abolished when the Tribes were terminated in 1954. The Tribes regained federal recognition in 1986.

Mitchell said the Tribes have been talking with the government about getting 670,000 to 690,000 acres of public land for a reservation.

Negotiations have included informal discussions with water users and land owners above and below Upper Klamath Lake.

"It appears we are really on track to pull this together as a community," Mitchell said.

In an effort to get national support for its plan, the ONRC sent a letter Wednesday to Oregon Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.

Ward and McCarthy also hand-delivered a copy of the proposal to the Klamath Tribes' office in Chiloquin.

McCarthy said the ONRC wants to get support for its proposal in the Basin.

"This is where the idea has to fail or succeed - this is the battleground," he said.

Although Ward said the Tribes should be compensated for the damage that was done to members when its lands were bought in 1954, the ONRC doesn't think giving them public land is the way to do that.

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