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Tulelake Airport land sold to Modoc Tribe

By Lee Juillerat

for the Mail Tribune

TULELAKE — The sale of land under the Tulelake Airport to the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma was unanimously approved by the Tulelake City Council late Tuesday afternoon.

“I’d like to welcome the Modocs from Oklahoma,” Councilman Richard Marcillac said to the Modoc delegation after the vote.

The council never publicly discussed two other offers for the land, from Modoc County and the Tule Lake Committee.

Modoc County, which owns the airport and has a strong financial interest in seeing it used as an airport, offered to equal the Modoc bid of $17,500. The Tule Lake Committee, a nonprofit group that includes Japanese-Americans incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center during World War II and their families, had offered $40,000.

The council met for a half-hour in a closed executive session to confer with attorney Michael Colantuono about the three offers before settling on the Modoc Tribe’s in open session. The offers from Modoc County and the Tule Lake Committee came after the council approved the first reading of the ordinance agreeing to sell the land to the Modoc Tribe in early July.

In remarks before public comments were taken, Colantuono said the sale price was not an issue because of stipulations requiring the city to return any profits to the airport, not to the city’s general fund. He said the $17,500 basically covers his legal costs. The city never has received any revenues from the airport, but has faced potential liability issues, officials said.

Colantuono also noted that for the sale to be completed, the Modocs must receive approval for the purchase from the Federal Aviation Administration. The airport is located on a portion of the former Tule Lake Segregation Center and was given to the city with a requirement it be used as an airport or, if not, be returned to the federal government.

Along with supporting the Modoc purchase, Tulelake Basin residents during a public hearing indicated strong resentment against the Tule Lake Committee and Klamath Tribes for ongoing lawsuits. The Tule Lake Committee has sued the city of Tulelake and Modoc County over plans to build a fence around the airport. The Klamath Tribes have filed court actions that, if successful, could shut off water deliveries to Tulelake and Klamath Basin irrigators.

John Prosser, a Tulelake Basin alfalfa and beer barley grower, received applause when he said, “I would like to welcome the Oklahoma tribe back to this basin,” and he expressed his belief the Modoc Tribe will bring “positive ideas” that will boost the region’s economy.

“They’ve come here not to sue, not to threaten us ... they’ve come to become part of the community,” said Nick Macy, owner of Macy’s Flying Service, which has a long-term lease from Modoc County to operate a crop-dusting business from the airport. Macy’s seasonally employs 35 to 40 people, making it the area’s largest employer.

Rudy Hiley, while never mentioning any specifics, referred to the lawsuits, saying, “Our community’s been at war ... and we’re sick and tired of it.”

Ben Duval, president of the Modoc County Farm Bureau, said the group supported the sale to the Modoc Tribe because “we feel it’s the best way to keep the airport open.”

During the comment period, Blake Follis, attorney general for the Modocs and the grandson of longtime Chief Bill Follis, said the tribe “intends to keep and operate this as a public airport with the hope of fostering economic development.” When later asked what businesses the tribe might try to lure to the airport, Follis responded, “Anything to support aviation.”

Patrick Bergin, a lawyer working for the Modocs, said his clients want to identify ways to increase use. He was asked why the Oklahoma-based tribe, which has been buying Tulelake Basin property and is reportedly negotiating the purchase of the former Newell School, is involved in California.

“The tribe can conduct business wherever it chooses,” Bergin said. “The tribe is returning home, and part of that involves buying land.”

Responding to a question on whether the Modoc Tribe supports the Klamath Tribes’ stance on water issues, Bergin noted the Modocs joined several other Tulelake and Klamath basin government agencies and groups in opposing the Klamath Tribes litigation.

“The Modoc Tribe,” he said, “is standing with the county (Klamath, Siskiyou and Modoc counties) and its position with agriculture.”

During the comment period, Taylor Tupper, a Klamath Tribes member, listed her many Modoc descendants, a reference to previous claims by the Oklahoma group that it represents Modoc Indians killed and removed from the Klamath Basin after the 1872-73 Modoc War. She expressed concerns about a possible “breakdown in communications” and a “lack of due process” by the city in discussing the sale with the Modoc Tribe and not with the Klamath Tribes. Another Klamath member, Norma Cummings, said that when the Modoc Tribe was created there was no mention of the tribe having land or connections in the Tulelake and Klamath basins.

Another Klamath member, Clay Dumont, offered, “Greeting relatives” to the Oklahoma group, but requested, “I’d like to urge you to work with the Klamath Tribes.”

Barbara Takei, representing the Tule Lake Committee, referred to the history of incarcerating Japanese-Americans at Tule Lake, noting President Ronald Reagan apologized for that action in 1988. She said the committee hopes the Tule Lake Unit, which is part of the larger World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, will serve as a unifying site for several groups, noting, “The histories of Native Americans who resisted removal programs that accommodated white settlers, and the settlers and homesteaders who benefited from government programs, are all part of Tule Lake’s history.”

Following Tuesday’s Tulelake City Council meeting, Chester Robertson, Modoc County administrative officer, said the county hopes to work with the Modoc Tribe. Robertson expressed concerns because the county could be liable for millions of dollars if the airport does not continue to be used as an airport.

“We believe we have a continued interest to operate the airport. We will need them (the Modoc Tribe) to work closely with us,” he said.

Several Tulelake Basin farmers and residents were obviously pleased with the council’s decision. Over the past several months many have met with tribal leaders and supported the tribe’s efforts to purchase the land.

“I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to this community in 66 years,” said Prosser. “I’m getting tired of being sued every time we turn around. I’m a farmer. I rely on that airport. These are business people,” he added, referring to Modoc tribal leaders.

“It’s a big deal to welcome these guys back after 145 years,” Prosser said.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

Blake Follis, attorney general for the ModocTribe