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Klamath tribe unveils plan to reclaim reservation lands

CHILOQUIN, Ore. - When Lynn Schonchin was a boy, he hunted, fished and chased wild horses through the verdant forests of the Klamath reservation in the foothills of the southern Cascade range.

The 1.9 million acre land base had helped make the combined Modoc, Klamath and Paiute tribes the most self-sufficient, wealthy tribes in the nation. By the mid-20th century, sustainable forest harvesting practices had enabled them to manage vast timber resources for the benefit of the entire Klamath Basin's population for almost 50 years.

But the Klamath Termination Act of 1954 devastated the moral and economic fiber of the tribe. To pay the $43,000 individual share amount due withdrawing tribal members, the U.S. government sold off most of the reservation lands - creating portions of the Winema and Fremont National Forests in the process.

By 1963, 28 percent of the tribe had died by age 25, 52 percent by age 40. Of those deaths, 40 percent were alcohol related.

Despite long odds, the Klamath Nation struggled to its feet. In 1975 the tribe re-adopted its 1953 constitution and tribal government. This lead to a reaffirmation of the tribe's hunting, fishing and water claim rights. In 1986 the Klamath tribe regained its federal recognition status.

Since that time the tribal government has been under a mandate by Congress to develop an economic self-sufficiency plan for its 3,000 members. After 14 years of research, information gathering, planning and debate, the tribal council has completed its plan. In late October, tribal chairman Allen Foreman took it to BIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., for approval.

If it passes muster at the BIA, the next step will be approval by Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt.

The main thrust of the 100-year economic restoration plan is return of 690,000 acres of former reservation lands now part of the Winema National Forest. The plan aims to revive deer and fish populations as subsistence food sources and restore sustainable-yield logging to provide jobs and tribal income.

With a current tribal unemployment rate between 45 and 65 percent, the plan makes it plain that in order for economic development to take place, the tribe needs sufficient land base to accomplish its goals.

The plan also sets forward another message.

"If we don't go back and ask for the return of our land, then we're saying termination was OK," says Schonchin, the tribe's general manager. "I think that's an important statement that the tribe is making."

Other terminated tribes, such as the Grand Ronde, Siletz and Menominee nations received land grants after being re-recognized by the federal government. But none was of the size currently being sought by the Klamath tribe.

The tribe says there has been some negative comment by local county residents about the plan: that since Klamath tribal members were paid for the land, having it returned is double-dipping.

In response, tribal members point out the federal government has already turned about a 200 percent profit from timber sales and that the amount paid out by the government only equaled the price of merchantable timber on the land - not the land itself.

Schonchin says the economic self-sufficiency plan is fair and, more to the point, it addresses the healing necessary for both the land and the Klamath people. He maintains the plan will have a widespread, positive impact on the local economy of the Klamath basin.

"The stewardship by the National Forest Service hasn't been very good for the land at all," he says. "The way that they have harvested timber has had drastic impacts."

Timber mills in Klamath Falls and towns like Bly, not far from the reservation, have closed in recent years because of poor resource management. Plantation system planting and clear-cutting practices by the Forest Service heavily impacted ecosystems and wildlife. Clear-cutting at the top of mountains and ridges has been another big mistake, he says.

"There's nothing up there to hold the snow melt longer and so we're getting earlier runoffs and then we don't have the runoff when we need it later in the late spring and summer," Schochin says. "And so ... water is a real issue."

Crops in the Klamath Basin such as sugar beets and potatoes have been impacted by water shortages and farmers in Klamath County have taken some real economic hits over the years.

"The economy and timber is dying," Schochin says. "The economy needs to be diversified in other ways.

"If people would really look at it, the tribe has capabilities to diversify and we're the only organization that has real capabilities of bringing Oregon's federal tax dollars back to Oregon and pumping it back into the economy."

Although the tribe won't make any further plans until a decision about the land transfer is made by the BIA, Schochin says, personally, he is sure the land will come back to the tribe.

"Sometimes to go out and drive through it now, it's heartbreaking," he says. "But then I look at it the way my grandkids might when those boys get about 20 years old. ... To me it's a completion of the cycle of our people from where we were in the beginning when it was taken away from us."