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Plan would return some timberlands to Ore. tribes

GRANTS PASS — Sen. Ron Wyden is shopping the idea of returning control to two Indian tribes of about 30,000 acres of federal timberlands in southwestern Oregon as part of his strategy for solving the longstanding problems of timber counties.

The Oregon Democrat said Thursday that the legislative proposal fits into his goals of increasing timber production on federal tracts known as the O&C Lands to provide more revenue to counties, protecting special places such as wilderness, and renewing a federal subsidy for timber counties for one more year while this falls into place.

The tribes "want to look at approaches in the forestry area that balance and really address this concern I hear at every town hall meeting, which is how are you going to increase the cut to create jobs, and how are you going to protect treasures," Wyden said from Washington, D.C. "That message is exactly what the tribes are trying to communicate."

The proposal calls for transferring 15,000 acres from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, to be held in trust for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. Another 17,000 would go to the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

Bob Garcia, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, said the transfer would right an old wrong, when more than 1 million acres of reservation were whittled away from the tribes, and give the tribes a chance to put the land to work for everyone in a way it hasn't seen for many years.

"Our tribe is one of the few tribes (in Oregon) that never received either land or money for what was taken," Garcia said from tribal headquarters in Coos Bay.

Giving the tribes greater control over how the land is managed would serve as an example of what counties could do if they achieved the same kind of control over the O&C lands, he added. Management would be done under federal environmental laws.

Wayne Shammel, tribal attorney for the Cow Creek Band, said they intentionally chose less productive timberlands in the center of the area proposed for their reservation more than a century ago, but never granted, to minimize the political opposition.

"The government would save a bunch of money transferring it to us," he said. "They aren't very productive lands."

Counties that depend on timber revenues initially opposed the idea but have backed off after Wyden assured them that the law required that any O&C lands transferred would be replaced.

After initially expressing opposition, Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, president of the Association of O&C Counties, said in a statement that he looked forward to working with Wyden on a permanent solution to managing the O&C lands.

The O&C lands reverted to federal control after the collapse of the Oregon & California Railroad. Unlike national forests, BLM shares half the revenues from logging with the counties. Since federal logging cutbacks in the 1990s to protect fish, wildlife and clean water, revenues have plummeted, and a federal safety net has expired. Counties have been working to gain greater control over the lands so they could provide more revenue.

For the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw tribes, the lands would be divided into three tracts, one for each of them, that would include a combination of cultural resources, such as old village sites, and timber suitable for logging. The lands for the Cow Creek Band are a patchwork along a ridge outside Canyonville, the site of their casino.