Fulfilling the Klamath vision

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When President Bush appointed three cabinet secretaries and the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality to a working group to find solutions to the water quality and quantity issues in the Klamath Basin, the message was clear. When he told us to move quickly, the message was even clearer. The President is determined not to see a repeat of the problems faced in the basin in 2001.

The Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group has met several times since the President charged Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, CEQ Chairman James Connaughton and me to find long-term solutions to help the people of the basin. Our shared goal was working to protect the interests of the farmers whose livelihoods depend on the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project. That work will continue. In addition, we will work to restore the ecosystem of the basin, which will lead to certainty and predictability for irrigated agriculture.

We also recognize that long-term solutions in the basin must be developed in partnership with the people who live and work in the basin, including the farmers, ranchers, fishermen and members of area tribes. Last week [March 18], I assigned senior Interior Department staff members to meet with the Klamath Tribes to discuss solutions that will help ensure economic progress for the Klamath Tribes as well as enhance water quality and quantity.

When Congress re-recognized the Klamath Tribes in 1986, it directed the Secretary of the Interior to work with them to reach this goal of self-sufficiency. Since then, courts have ruled that the Klamath Tribes retain treaty rights to hunt, fish, trap and gather in the area of the former reservation as well as sufficient water to sustain those rights. Any long-term solution to the water issues in the Basin must help the Klamath Tribes move toward self-sufficiency and address these legal rights. It is imperative to understand that these rights were not purchased when the federal government acquired the Klamath Tribes' former reservation in the 1960s.

In our meetings with the Klamath Tribes, which will take many months of work, we will cover the entire range of water, land and wildlife issues in the Klamath Basin, including:

?Tribal water rights, in the context of protecting the Tribes' needs and providing stability to water planning for the agricultural community;

?The possible return to the Klamath Tribes of public lands which were formerly within their reservation, in the context of economic self-sufficiency, restored biological integrity for the forest and improved water quality for the entire Basin;

?The current and future needs of those who currently use the public lands, whether Indian or non-Indian; and ideas to settle land and water conflicts so that everyone can live together in the basin, served by a functioning watershed and a healthy environment.

As we undertake these discussions, we will seek input from the community, so that we understand the needs and concerns of all local interests. Our focus will be on the impact of our decisions on the people of the basin, whether they are farmers, fishermen, hunters, ranchers or members of area tribes. In particular, we need to have a vision for the Klamath Basin that does not portray its problems as one of people versus nature.

The people of the Klamath Basin cherish the land and its natural beauty and desire to hand their way of life down to future generations. Together we have an opportunity to work toward a vision that includes clear waters, abundant fisheries, increased waterfowl, a vibrant agricultural community, and an end to the legal fighting among the various interests, which continues to poison the relationships among its people.

President Bush has committed his administration to fulfilling this vision. Together we will do it.

Secretary Norton, Secretary of the Interior, chairs the Klamath River Basin Federal Working Group. This article first appeared in the Portland Oregonian March 27.