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Bill boosting tribal land rights in Southern Oregon passes U.S. House

WASHINGTON (AP) — A bill sponsored by Oregon's Rep. Peter DeFazio that would strengthen the tribal authority and expand the land rights of three Southwestern Oregon Native American tribes passed the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday and is headed for the Senate.

The Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act, H.R. 2791, would provide land in trust to the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. Currently, the Cow Creek Band and the CTCLUSI do not hold any land in trust.

The bill also expands the Coquille Indian Tribe’s sovereignty over the Coquille Forest. When Congress restored the tribe’s federal recognition 26 years ago, the Coquille Restoration Act included a requirement that the tribe must manage its forest under the same standards as nearby federal lands. That means the Coquilles have the only tribal forest bound by the environmental rules of the Northwest Forest Plan.

H.R. 2791 would free the tribe from that obligation. The tribe's lands, however, remain federal lands and as such are subject to a ban on log exports.

“These tribes have waited for Congress to make good on a deal made decades ago, and today they are finally gaining some of the recognition they deserve,” DeFazio said in an announcement of the bill's passage.

"We are thrilled by the passage of H.R. 2791," said Chairman Mark Ingersoll of the CTCLUSI. "Representatives DeFazio and (Greg) Walden have helped their colleagues take a big step toward making jobs and justice a reality for the Tribe and for western Oregon."

“Today is a great step forward toward restoring the integrity of our treaty with the federal government for a permanent reservation for the Cow Creek people,” said Cow Creek Chairman Dan Courtney. “We are grateful for the tremendous personal effort given by Congressman DeFazio and the whole Oregon delegation in moving our bill through the House of Representatives."

"This legislation is critical to sustain the Coquille Tribe's environmentally responsible forest management, which produces jobs and supplies vital logs to Oregon's struggling mills,” said Coquille Indian Tribe Chairperson Brenda Meade. “We applaud Congressman DeFazio for his tireless work to help Oregon with this legislation.”

The bill now heads to the Senate for further consideration. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has already introduced a bill similar to DeFazio's there.

The lands that would be conveyed in trust to the CTCLUSI comprise 14,804 acres broken up into several tracts scattered in the Coast Range and on the coast between Tioga in southern Coos County and the Triangle Lake vicinity near Eugene. The tribe requested the tracts in a 2013 proposal.

The Cow Creek Band would get 17,000 acres of BLM forestland in the Canyonville area, said Tim Vredenburg, the tribe's director of forest management.

Both the Cow Creek Band and the CTCLUSI also have expressed interest in purchasing Elliott State Forest lands. State officials are hosting a meeting Thursday in Salem for interested parties to start hashing out the details of how the state could sell or otherwise divest itself of the 84,000 acres that have historically provided revenue to the Common School Fund. Logging restrictions have choked timber revenue from the land to a trickle, and the State Land Board on Aug. 13 authorized transfer of the land out of public ownership.

"It's commonly, publicly known that we've put our name in to purchase it," Ingersoll said about his tribe. "It is our aboriginal territory."

But he emphasized that those negotiations were just beginning. "It's in the infant stages," he said.