Cowboys, Indians, and land: an old saga's new twist

Environmentalists often cite native Americans as a model for protecting nature. The groups are working together to restore Maine's Penobscot River and oppose natural-gas exploration on Navajo lands.

But just as the 1854 speech attributed to Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe ("We are a part of the earth and it is part of us") is now considered a myth, the collaboration of environmentalists and Indians has been tenuous at best. And today it's being tested, as some tribes assert their rights to exploit - as well as preserve - natural resources.

This is evident in the Klamath Basin of California and Oregon, where conservation groups oppose a plan returning extensive areas of national forest to tribes. They worry that native Americans will abuse the land. Critics say this has been the case in southeast Alaska, where Indian corporations have made vast clear-cuts on land they control.

Symbolically, it's a case of cowboys and Indians representing centuries-old, conflicting cultures: They have joined forces against a more modern version of land conservation that puts endangered species way ahead of resource development.

After years of conflict, the Klamath Tribes have met with area ranchers to allot water for wildlife refuges, crops, and cattle, while recognizing tribal water rights that go back to an 1864 treaty. Since the negotiations involve federal lands, administration officials have joined in. The heart of the plan is a transfer of 690,000 acres - most of the Winema and Fremont national forests - to tribal control.

The stakes are huge: more than 1,000 square miles of national forest valued at $1.4 billion. Perhaps more important, returning control to tribal authorities would set a precedent for tribes claiming unfair treatment under historic treaties with Washington.

Before white settlers arrived, the tribes (the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians, collectively known as the Klamath Tribes) claimed some 22 million acres. Under pressure from homesteaders and the US Cavalry, the tribes in 1864 gave up all but about 2 million acres in return for the right to hunt, fish, and gather "in perpetuity."

Through force and federal legislation, this reservation was reduced to just under 900,000 acres. Still, the tribes were one of the most economically and socially successful native American groups in the United States.

That changed in 1954 when Congress passed a law "terminating" the tribe, on the philosophy that Indians would do better if they became part of the dominant culture and economy. Most tribal members took the one-time buyout. But with no chance to buy back the land and little experience in a cash economy, few invested or started businesses.

The land became national forest open to commercial logging; within two decades, the tribes had high rates of infant mortality, unemployment, and alcoholism.

Declaring the termination "morally and legally unacceptable," President Richard Nixon in 1970 asked Congress to reverse it. The tribes were officially recognized in 1986. Since then, the Klamaths, who number about 3,000, have reasserted hunting, fishing, and water rights. Still, they had lost traditional lands.

Jay Ward, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC), acknowledges that Indians "have suffered greatly at the hands of the federal government." But, he says, Americans "[should not] be asked to give up public lands, natural resources, and the ... national forest legacy."

Conservation groups, including the ONRC, offer an alternative: federal compensation for lands and services lost to termination, in the form of cash or local private lands. National forests would be left under federal control.

"While the Tribes claim they wish to manage the lands for multiple natural benefits, they also seek to sustain their tribal community almost entirely by proceeds from commercial logging," the ONRC and 17 other groups wrote to Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon last week. "Unfortunately, history demonstrates these two goals are incompatible."

"We support economic self-sufficiency for native peoples," the groups say. "But we strongly oppose using publicly owned forests as a blank check ... to right past wrongs."

Environmentalists worry that the Klamath Tribes - sovereign nations under US law - would not be governed by the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, or the National Forest Management Act. The laws protect hundreds of millions of acres of public land.

The tribes flatly reject the environmentalists' plan, insisting they can take better care of the land than Uncle Sam has in a 50-year regime that has emphasized industrial logging. "It is difficult for us to imagine ... that lands now private, in place of the reservation lands that were designated as National Forest lands in 1961, could be a plausible solution," says tribal chairman Allen Foreman. "President Bush and Interior Secretary Gale Norton are clearly correct in saying that the Klamath Basin needs a water settlement," says Mr. Foreman. "Even in a fairly decent water year, there simply isn't enough."

In one sense, the cowboys and Indians here, as elsewhere in the West, are growing more alike. Many native Americans are farmers, ranchers, loggers, and miners. And many ranchers who descended (literally or emotionally) from early pioneers and homesteaders increasingly see themselves as an endangered species.

The main difference is that the Klamath tribes trace their ancestry back 14,000 years. They may have been temporarily "terminated" by Uncle Sam, but they still feel very connected to a land they believe to be theirs.

"Without the restored Homelands," says the tribes' plan for restoration, "the Klamath Peoples' spirituality, culture, economy, and community will continue to suffer the overwhelming effects of the federal termination."

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