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Tribal Timber gets a Senate Hearing

WASHINGTON - More important than law, is the way Sen. Gordon Smith
described the felt stewardship of three Northwest tribes toward their
traditional forest homelands.

And that may be a good thing, because the bill the Oregon Republican has
sponsored to convert approximately 62,865 acres in a federal park to trust
status for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw
Indians ran into heavy opposition March 30 from the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, the Oregon Natural Resources Council, and another Oregon
Republican in Congress with a more direct interest - Peter DeFazio in the
House of Representatives, whose district includes the debated acreage.

But every witness in opposition to S. 868, the Coos, Umpqua and Siuslaw
Restoration Amendments Act of 2003, also spoke of their willingness to
achieve alternative forms of redress for the tribes.

Smith, assuming the chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for the
hearing, remarked on the exceptionally moving testimony of Cheryl Hoiles,
the confederated tribes' vice chairperson. She detailed the tribes'
transfer and return from the 19th century Coastal Reservation to find
"their land had been settled, and they had been left with no resources of
any kind," an experience followed by "one of the darkest periods in our
history," by a few decent gestures from the BIA and private citizens, and
of course by further cruelties including a 1954 presidential order
terminating the federal recognition of the tribes over their oft-stated
opposition. "The six acres donated in 1940 [by Louis J. Simpson and William G. Robertson, as gratefully noted in Hoiles' testimony] and subsequent
purchases by the tribe of small tracts remain the only reservation land."

In 1984, Congress rectified the recognition problem, but without providing
compensation in land or money. S. 868 would begin to rectify that problem
too, providing tribal jobs through forest "thinning" operations (in
essence, clearing the underbrush and dead trees), income through wood
byproducts of the thinning process, and capacity for the advancement of
skills and knowledge through cooperative co-management with the National
Forest Service.

But opponents feel it will raise other problems. Mark Rey, undersecretary
on natural resources and the environment at USDA, agreed with the goals of
cultural restoration and economic benefit, but raised a flurry of red flags
as well. Foremost among these was the precedent of transferring 10 percent
of Siuslaw National Forest to a tribe, which Rey described as a foretaste
of "large land transfers from other National Forests to tribes ..."

Responding to a direct question from Smith, Hoiles said the almost 63,000
acres would go to three tribes, after all, at about 11,000 acres per tribe,
that figure is not out of line with contemporary congressional land
transfers to tribes, Smith observed.

While acknowledging that the bill retains environmental protections, Rey
also addressed an environmental issue: "The proposed transfer would
fragment relatively contiguous watersheds and would significantly reduce
the Forest Service's flexibility for management of the Siuslaw National
Forest."

But the main environmental objections came from Oregon Natural Resources
Council, self-described as a 6,000-member multi-party citizens alliance.
Conservation director Jay Ward argued that land transfers to tribes are a
way for development-minded officials and "industry groups" in the timber
trade to replace National Forest Service standards with BIA practice --
that is, to get rid of the "conservation values" in the NFS mandate from
Congress. "The Bureau of Indian Affairs has no such mandate ... Under the
National Indian Forest Resources Management Act, [it] is the responsibility
of the BIA to 'develop forest land and lease assets on this land' for the
economic benefit of American Indians and Alaska Natives."

Ward also raised the specter of inter-tribal rivalry spreading into
Northern California. "Over 62,000 acres of timber, worth billions of
dollars, would be transferred to and held in trust by the Bureau of Indian
Affairs ..." Actually, it is the United States that would hold the land in
trust through the Interior, with the BIA perhaps providing services to the
tribe -- a minor enough misstatement of a complex relationship, but one
that may be worth noting in view of Ward's later confident prognosis of "a
Pandora's box of claims and counter claims which this committee could take
decades to settle" as other small Oregon tribes with "considerably less
acreage" press "conflicting ancestral claims to these lands."

Testifying for S. 868, Peter Wakeland, natural resources manager for the
Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon, poured cold water on the
worst expectations for tribal forest management. "It is meaningful in the
context of this hearing to point out that in the 15 years since our forest
was restored to us, the Grand Ronde have exceeded the expectations of
environmentalists, local communities, and the forest products industry."

Further support came from John Gordon, of Interforest Inc. in Branford,
Conn. Testifying at a separate but related hearing on the December 2003
second report of the Indian Forest Management Assessment Team, Gordon told
Smith he strongly approves of S. 868. "It would create another Indian
entity managing forests."

Joining Nolan Colegrove, Hoopa president of the Intertribal Timber Council,
Gordon argued for more federal funding to Indian forestry programs. At
present, he said, the almost 18 million acres of forest (variously defined)
on reservations receive $2.83 in funding to the BIA per acre, compared with
$9.51 per acre to the National Forest Service -- a $119 million annual gap.

Both Colegrove and Gordon emphasized the great improvements in tribal
forestry programs as measured in the IFMAT reports of 1993 and 2003.
"Nationally ... despite significant challenges and funding levels only a
third of those provided for the management of federal forest lands, Indian
forest lands have a striking potential to serve as models of
sustainability," Colegrove said.

S. 868 can be accessed on the Internet at
http://capwiz.com/cspan/issues/bills/.