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Klamath talks begin

CHILOQUIN, Ore. ? Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced she would start talks to restore the Klamath reservation and recognize tribal water rights, at the same time that she and fellow cabinet member Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman cranked open the headgate releasing irrigation water for Klamath Basin farmers. "Klamath Tribes have property rights that must be respected and interests that must be honored as we develop solutions," Norton said.

The ceremony at Canal A, the main water diversion canal in the Klamath Basin, marked an attempt by the Bush administration to satisfy both Klamath tribal interests and a farming constituency angered by last year's shut-down of irrigation water.

About a thousand farms lost their water supply as the Clinton administration's Interior Department gave priority to preserving endangered stocks of suckerfish and coho salmon, fish considered sacred by the Klamath tribes. The ensuing "suckerfish war" attracted national attention and led to high tension and some violence directed against Indians.

After the opening March 29, Klamath officials met with Norton's staff, and both parties committed to a series of meetings to be held in the next few weeks, said attorney Carl Ullman, Director of the Water Adjudication Project for the Klamath Tribes.

The three tribes in the group are the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin.

"It was a productive conversation," Ullman said. "It's very encouraging. It's really the first time any Interior Secretary has stepped up."

Northern California tribes concerned about downstream impact were much more hostile, however. A delegation of Yurok led by Chair Sue Masten, former president of the National Congress of American Indians, protested the floodgate opening and personally confronted Norton.

"Recklessly diverting this water is going to have a devastating effect on our fisheries," said Masten. "This is an unbelievably capricious action from the Bush administration. There was no consultation with the Tribes, no concern for the impact on our fragile economy and a willful disregard for our rights which stretch back more than 150 years."

As Yurok members beat drums in protest, cheering farmers displayed a red, white and blue banner reading, "Thank you President Bush for caring about rural America."

(By Jennifer Hemmingsen, Today correspondent, with Associated Press and staff reports.)

"Let the water flow! Let the water flow!" they chanted.

A banner carried by tribal members read: "Bush kills salmon." When Norton spotted it, she said, "We don't think that's true."

President George W. Bush appointed a cabinet-level commission to resolve the conflict. In a further demonstration of its symbolic importance to his administration, his chief environmental policy adviser on April 2 announced what officials called the first steps toward developing a water bank to make more irrigation water available in the Klamath Basin.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council for Environmental Quality and a member of the federal working group on Klamath water issues, introduced two proposals by conservationists.

He said the projects ? with the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust and with the Nature Conservancy ? should result in more and cleaner water flowing into Upper Klamath Lake.

John Keyes, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the two projects would be the foundation of the bureau's plans for a water bank to help balance water demands in the Klamath Basin.

Interior's talks with the Klamath tribes will include resolution of tribal water rights issues and the possible return of significant parts of their former reservation, which was taken by the United States under 1950s termination policies. Ullman expects the Tribe and Interior staff to review the issue for the next 16 months while President George Bush's cabinet-level task force, headed by Norton, tackles conflicts about water shortages, environmental damage, and Tribal rights in the Klamath Basin.

While discussions will center on tribal water rights recently upheld by a district judge, Ullman said the Tribe is not interested in a land-for-water swap with Interior.

"The Tribes need land and water," he said. "It makes no more sense for tribes to be expected to make a livelihood with one and not the other than it does to expect the farmers to."

For thousands of years, the Klamath Tribes lived on 22 million acres in southwest Oregon and northern California. The Treaty of 1864 created a 2.2-million acre reservation for the Klamath Tribes, but in 1954 Congress terminated the Klamaths' tribal status and sold their reservation lands.

Approximately 690,000 acres of those reservation lands became parts of the Winema and Fremont National Forests. It is those former reservation lands now in the National Forests that may once again become the Klamath Tribes reservation.

"Secretary Norton is asking the right questions and taking the right steps," said Klamath Tribal Chairman Allen Foreman. "Honoring the Klamath Tribes' water rights so our fisheries can recover is central to any resolution of water conflicts in the Klamath Basin.

"We approach these discussions knowing that a healthy agricultural economy also depends on water. And we believe that restoring the Klamath Tribes homeland is essential, not only to returning our own people to economic self-sufficiency, but to rebuilding a sustainable economy for all our neighbors in the Klamath Basin."