GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Tuesday she is considering giving Klamath Tribes back their reservation lands as part of a strategy to balance water needs in the Northwest's drought-stricken Klamath River Basin.
The tribes' have had a long-standing desire to get back 692,000 acres of reservation lands liquidated by the federal government. The land is now part of the Winema and Fremont national forests.
"Klamath Tribes have property rights that must be respected and interests that must be honored as we develop solutions," Norton said in a statement from Washington.
Interior Department officials will meet with tribe members as part of a Cabinet-level task force's effort to assure water for farmers as well as fish and wildlife, said agency spokesman Mark Pfeifle.
Tribal Chairman Allen Foreman pledged full cooperation to Norton and the task force. The tribes believe that if their land was returned, they could manage it better than the forest service, ultimately improving the ecosystem and resolving the water conflict.
When drought made water supplies tight last spring, the Endangered Species Act required the federal government to hold back water from the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federal irrigation system serving 220,000 acres of farmland straddling the Oregon-California border. The water was dedicated to endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened salmon in the Klamath River.
The irrigation shut-off produced a long summer of confrontations among farmers, the tribes, conservationists and the federal government over how to allocate the basin's waters.
The Klamath Water Users Association — representing farmers and businesses dependent on the Klamath Project — grudgingly supported talks between the Interior Department and the tribes.
"We are supportive that the secretary is willing to sit down with folks," said Executive Director Dan Keppen.