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To salvage Klamath deal, tribes look to national forest

By KELLY HOUSE
The Oregonian

A failed land deal that would have returned part of the former Klamath Indian Reservation to the Klamath Tribes has tribal leaders now eyeing the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

Staff for Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley confirmed they are working with the tribes on a plan to transfer part of the southern Oregon forest — once part of the Klamath reservation — back to tribal ownership.

They say granting the tribes federal forest land is crucial to keeping them on board with the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement after private land promised to them as part of the water use settlement was sold to a Singapore company.

If the Klamath agreement fell apart, it would unravel complex water sharing deals irrigators, conservationists and the tribes have been relying on to survive the region's prolonged and continuing drought.

“Senator Wyden is more determined than ever to bring these agreements into law,” Wyden's spokesman Hank Stern said in an email. “He is working now with the Forest Service and others to see how the current obstacles can be turned into opportunities.”

If the scenario seems familiar, it is.

The George W. Bush administration considered returning part of the forest to the tribes during early Klamath Basin negotiations. Environmentalists and outdoor interest groups protested, and the plan fell through.

This time the potential land transfer would be a fraction of the 690,000 acres proposed for tribal ownership back the early 2000s. There's also a lot on the line.

Unless the lost private land is replaced with an equally valuable parcel, the tribes are ready to walk away from the Klamath water agreement. If the Fremont-Winema replacement comes through, Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry said, “then we can move forward.”

Reservation land belonging to the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin tribes once covered 2.5 million acres. The tribes’ holdings had dwindled to 880,000 acres by 1954, when the federal government terminated their legal status and then stripped them of the remaining land, putting it up for sale to those who could buy at least 5,000 acres.

Crown Zellerbach bought the so-called Mazama Tract and Long Bell Lumber Co. acquired another. The U.S. Forest Service incorporated the rest into the Winema.

Since their re-establishment in 1986, the tribes have sought to restore a portion of their former landholdings.

A 2008 agreement with the Mazama Tract's owners, Fidelity National Financial, appeared promising. The federal government would put up $21 million so the tribes could buy the forested land east of Crater Lake. In exchange, the tribes, which hold senior water rights in the Klamath Basin, would make water available for irrigators as part of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.

The agreement has yet to achieve congressional backing, but money for the Mazama purchase has been trickling into the Bureau of Indian Affairs at a few million dollars a year. The tribes and the bureau tried to negotiate with Fidelity, Gentry said, but the process was slow and Fidelity wanted more than the tribes thought the land was worth.

The tribes extended the deadline on their agreement with Fidelity multiple times before it lapsed in 2012. Gentry said Fidelity grew increasingly unresponsive.

By late 2014, the tribes had secured about $24 million and were ready to negotiate a purchase price. Unbeknownst to them, Fidelity was deep in negotiations with another buyer, Singapore-based Whitefish Cascade Forest Resources, LLC.

“We hoped to go into a meeting with them and negotiate a price and they were reluctant to confirm the meeting, then we learned they sold the property,” Gentry said.

Fidelity announced in February it had sold of all Oregon properties held under its subsidiary, Cascade Timberlands, LLC, to Whitefish, including the Mazama and Deschutes County's Skyline Forest.

“We kind of reached a point where we had held this asset for so long ... that we just had to sell it,” Fidelity attorney Greg Lane said.

But the land had been a linchpin to the tribes’ participation in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.

They alerted agreement parties Feb. 28 that without a replacement for the Mazama Tract, they could pull out of the deal after 30 days. Gentry said tribal leadership is holding off, hoping their talks with Oregon's senators and the U.S. Forest Service will succeed.

Already, the deal is attracting attention from Oregon Wild and the Oregon Hunters Association, both of which opposed the first Winema transfer proposal.

Duane Dungannon, state coordinator for the Oregon Hunters Association, said his group opposes any deal that would shrink Oregon's public land base. Conservation group Oregon Wild opposes the sale too, citing worries about diminished public access and concerns that tribal ownership could result in logging and other industry-related habitat loss.

Oregon Wild conservation director Steve Pedery said he believes the tribes can recoup some of their former reservation land without shrinking the Winema.

“There was a tremendous mistake made in the 1950s, but the problem is 60 years have passed and this forest today has value for a tremendous range of things from ecological reasons to economic and recreational ones,” Pedery said.

There are key differences between today's talks and the ones of the early 2000s. Although the tribes have not identified a specific tract of land, they say it would be far smaller than last time. The tribes have also crafted a plan to manage the forest sustainably.

Merkley's spokesman, Martina McLennan, said the senator shares concerns about taking federal land out of public ownership, but the Klamath Tribes’ situation is exceptional.

“The Winema National Forest is, as far as our office can tell, the only national forest in the country made up of a tribe's reservation land removed from a tribe against its will when the federal government terminated the tribe's recognition,” McLennan said, adding that “the potential overall benefits to the community are enormous.”

Finding private land to replace the Mazama is not an option, Gentry said. The Mazama's new Singapore owners aren't interested in selling and the Long Bell tract is both off the market and in rougher shape due to aggressive logging.

“We're looking for something similar in purpose and not of less value than the Mazama,” he said.

The tribes’ general council is scheduled to meet Saturday to discuss options.

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Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com

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