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Ancestral homelands.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The ancestral homelands of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians once covered a sweeping expanse of Western Oregon - 1.6 million acres from the Siuslaw River to the Umpqua River, and from the coast to the area that is now Eugene.

Not long after white settlers first arrived, the tribes' lands were taken under a federal treaty that promised - but never delivered - compensation. Instead, the tribes' members were forcibly marched to reservations where half of them died of starvation, exposure and disease.

In time, even the reservations were taken away through opportunistic acts of Congress. Surviving tribal members found that their ancestral lands - villages, graveyards, hunting and fishing grounds, holy sites - had been appropriated by settlers and their government. Indians were regarded as intruders, strangers in what had once been their own land.

In the 1950s, Congress dealt the tribes another blow, terminating their federal status in what it rationalized as a noble effort to push Indians toward cultural assimilation.

Three decades later, after the civil rights movement raised awareness of the injustices suffered by Native Americans, Congress reversed itself and restored tribal status. Lawmakers, and in some cases the courts, began granting land as compensation for lost homelands and unfulfilled treaty obligations.

Today, only one of Oregon's nine federally recognized Indian tribes has never been compensated: the 720-member Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw.

The time has come to pay that inexcusable and long-outstanding debt. U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., plans to introduce a bill later this month to transfer to the Coos Bay-based confederation 63,000 acres - approximately 10 percent of the Siuslaw National Forest on the central Oregon Coast. While some details have yet to be agreed upon, the bill appears well-crafted and evenly balanced. It deserves swift approval.

Smith's bill is the latest in a series that have been drafted since tribal status was restored in 1984. Previous versions failed because of public and local government opposition, and because of concern over such issues as public access and environmental protections. The latest version, the result of intensive planning and consultation by the tribes, takes these concerns into account and has garnered a level of local support that its predecessors lacked.

The only opposition so far has been from environmental groups that have cited concerns about public access, old growth forests, roadless areas, threatened salmon and clean water - all important considerations. The confederation's land management plan addresses all of them: Public access to the forest land for hunting, fishing, recreation and transportation would not be curtailed. Federal environmental protections, including those governing timber harvesting and salmon protection, would all remain in effect.

Tribal officials also plan to limit timber harvesting to thinning consistent with federal guidelines for the development of late-successional forests and the objectives of the Oregon plan for salmon recovery. They hope to generate jobs in watershed restoration, recreation and fish and wildlife habitat improvement, and they have pledged to use a percentage of timber-harvest revenues for salmon protection. The confederation also intends to identify and protect archaeological resources, including spiritual and burial sites, and to develop recreation and eco-tourism opportunities.

Smith's bill also includes a prohibition on the export of unprocessed logs, a requirement that all timber contracts be open to competitive bidding and a guarantee that the federal timber revenues received by counties will remain unchanged. The bill would forbid any gaming activities on the property, and the proposal has nothing to do with the tribes' current efforts to build a casino on 100 acres of land on the North Fork of the Siuslaw River near Florence.

Like the casino, however, the restored lands are intended to provide a reliable source of revenue to support vital tribal programs - schools, health care, senior services and more - and enable the tribes to become economically self-sufficient.

In a related move that recognizes the tribes' connection with the land they inhabited for centuries, Siuslaw forest officials this week signed an agreement that requires them to consult with the tribes on land management decisions.

That's a good beginning. Now it's up to Congress to do the rest and ensure that the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians enjoy what they haven't had for nearly 150 years - a land they can once again call their own.
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Title Annotation:Bill would restore 63,000 acres to coastal tribes; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 14, 2003
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