By Terri C. Hansen
Environment and Science Writer
CHILOQUIN, Ore. – It’s a new chapter in the history of the landless Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon. They’re buying back part of their lost reservation – and with that returns their tradition of caring for and being nurtured by their native land.
The Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin peoples who make up the Klamath Tribes, entered into an option agreement Dec. 18 to purchase the 90,000-acre Mazama Forest in south central Oregon near their tribal home of Chiloquin.
The forest was part of 1.2 million acres reserved for them in an 1864 treaty, but liquidated by Congress in 1954 during the now repudiated policies of the Termination Era. The tribe regained federal recognition in 1968 – but not their reservation.
"People have asked me, what will you do to get the land back? And I’ve told them, ‘whatever it takes,’" said Klamath tribal chairman Joe Kirk. "And now I’m excited." Two years ago the tribe asked the national conservation organization Trust for Public Lands for help in buying their land back. "They really beat the streets for us," said Kirk.
"The land is important to this wrongly terminated tribal nation," said Charles F. Sams, III, director of TPL’s Tribal and Native Lands Program. "It’s a major achievement in their long struggle back to cultural independence and economic self-reliance." The tribe plans to take ownership of the land this fall.
Not only will land provide the tribe with financial stability, "it’s a significant part of our spiritual and cultural identity," Kirk said. "There are culturally sensitive areas to take care of, that hopefully have not been lost to past activities."
The federal government will pay $21 million to cover part of the cost of the land, as part of the $1 billion Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which includes the agreement last summer to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, blamed for destroying salmon runs in the river and in the Pacific Ocean.
A handful of locals in the rural communities of the Klamath Basin don’t much like the plan. "Why should the taxpayers foot the bill to buy land to establish a separate country for the Klamath Tribes? Isn’t this fostering separatism, apartheid and racism?" asked a letter to the editor signed "we in the Basin Alliance."
And last August the group, who calls itself the Klamath Basin Alliance, Inc., placed a display ad in the local paper asking readers to sign a form that would reject the land agreement. The ad, which didn’t list any groups or people who make up the "Alliance," argued that the Klamath Tribes sold their reservation as "willing sellers," and they’ll get 92,000 acres of land bought with "taxpayer money."
But the ad was deceiving. The federal government is paying about two-thirds the cost of the yet to be appraised land. The Klamath Tribes is responsible for the rest.
In treaties with the United States, the Klamath peoples ceded 18 million acres of prime timber and farmland for guarantees in perpetuity of their sovereignty, a 2.2 million acre reservation, the protection of their natural resources, and social services that included health care, education, and housing.
By 1953, the tribe was nearly at an economic par with mainstream society. Tribal members didn’t receive land payments when they were terminated; instead they were paid for the value of the ponderosa pine on the land. The loss of land and social services for the tribe following termination is estimated well in excess of $200 million.
Racism and bigotry is hard for Kirk to understand. "I think we should maintain our identities, and emphasize our commonalties," he said. The tribe is looking to foster good will among the tribes’ non-supporters. "The tribe is the fourth largest employer in the county. It has a rippling effect. Say if our casino closed, folks working for the Pepsi plant would lose their jobs."
The tribe has developed a forest restoration and management plan for the Mazama Forest that will be a cornerstone for their economic development. Improving the health of the forest is a priority.
"Portions of the land have been over-harvested, and some hasn’t been managed well at all," Kirk said. The tribe plans to manage the forest in an environmentally sound manner to provide a steady supply of timber to their tribal enterprises planned at the tribes’ Giiwas Green Enterprise Park, 25 miles from Chiloquin.