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Federal Court Finds in Favor of Karuk Tribe, Halts Forest Work

A court has ruled that careless use of heavy logging equipment in areas of the Six Rivers National Forest in northeastern California violated the National Historic Preservation Act
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Careless use of heavy logging equipment in areas of the Six Rivers National Forest in northeastern California has been found to be in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) by a federal court. The work encroached on and damaged land considered sacred by the Karuk Tribe.

“The Forest Service put together a timber harvest plan, but they called it a community fuels reduction plan,” Karuk Tribal Spokesman Craig Tucker said.. The tribe agreed to the fuels reduction plan after three years of public community meetings with the Forest Service. “The forest is in poor health. At the end of the day we endorsed their plan.” The project was designed to treat approximately 2,698 acres of forest allegedly to increase wildfire suppression effectiveness in and around the community of Orleans.

“Portions of the project area overlap with portions of the Panamnik World Renewal Ceremonial District, which has cultural and spiritual significance to the Karuk Tribe,” the court decision said. “About half of the Medicine Man Trail runs through or along treatment units of the Orleans project.”

“During the planning phases of the project, Karuk spiritual practitioners were consulted by the Forest Service,” the ruling continued, “and it was determined that the Medicine Man Trail would not be impacted by the project. According to plaintiffs, however, the project has negatively impacted the Medicine Man Trail, as well as other Karuk cultural resources and various aspects of the natural environment in the Six Rivers National Forest.”

“The Forest Service hired contractors—Timber Products Company—to come in and do the work, but the work was not consistent with the plan,” Tucker added. “We found logs across the Medicine Man Trail. It’s like they threw out the years of planning. They just jettisoned it. When we confronted Forest Service, Supervisor Tyrone Kelley he said, ‘Oh, we left that out of the contract with the loggers.’ That speaks of either incompetence or the playing of dirty pool. So we filed litigation.” A lawsuit was brought against Kelley and the USFS in June of 2010.

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“Without determining whether sloppiness, poor decision-making, or improper motivations might explain the communication failure, this order finds that the set of communication methods adopted by defendants was not adequate to inform Timber Products that certain preventive mitigation measures were imperative. This failure to follow through constitutes a violation of defendants’ NHPA responsibility to evaluate and mitigate potential adverse impacts,” the verdict stated.

“In light of the finding...defendants are hereby ENJOINED from conducting further implementation of the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project until appropriate remedial measures are established to bring the project into compliance,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote in his decision.

“Where we are now is the judge has ordered the Forest Service and the tribe to try to find a solution. We’ll see how that goes. We don’t trust Six Rivers National Forest to do things correctly unless we’re looking over their shoulder,” Tucker said. “The Karuk have a lot of important ceremonial sites around Orleans that must be protected.”

“We’re developing a memorandum of agreement with the tribe relative to how to implement the project,” Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor Tyrone Kelley told Indian Country Today. “It incorporates some additional measures to review some of the sensitive issues before we restart the project.” Kelley said there is a court hearing set for September 1. He hopes work will resume sometime this fall.

Taking a broader look at the Six Rivers case Tucker said, “I think it brings a significant amount of attention to these sacred sites issues. I think all over the United States there are these kinds of issues tribes are facing where their sacred sites are now on public lands. Places where people have worshiped for thousands of years are getting paved over or logged over or getting dammed and flooded. Hopefully this case will empower other tribes to take action against agencies that are doing damaging things to their sacred areas.”