Members of the Klamath Tribes are thinning trees and pulling out invasive plants in Ashland and elsewhere in the the Rogue Valley — honing the skills that could help them regain and manage their ancestral homelands in the Klamath Basin.

Members of the Klamath Tribes are thinning trees and pulling out invasive plants in Ashland and elsewhere in the the Rogue Valley — honing the skills that could help them regain and manage their ancestral homelands in the Klamath Basin.

"We're hoping to restore the land if we get it back," said Klamath Tribes member Bo Parkins as he paused for lunch during a blackberry eradication project along the choked banks of Bear Creek in Medford.

Last week alone, the crew of almost a dozen tribal members thinned trees in the Ashland Watershed, improved a site near Ashland Creek's confluence with Bear Creek by the Ashland dog park, and chainsawed through blackberries and pulled out their roots in Medford.

They are taking out the blackberry tangles so that young willow and conifer trees planted along Bear Creek a year ago can thrive, eventually providing shade to cool the waters for fish. With the thorny brambles gone, students from nearby Cascade Christian High School can tend the trees.

The Klamath Tribes — which is made up of Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin American Indians — has teamed with the nonprofit, Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project to work on forest and riparian projects. Lomakatsi is a Hopi word that means "life in balance."

Tribe members hope to use their skills in the Klamath Basin, home to fierce battles over limited water that have pitted American Indians, farmers and downstream commercial fishermen against each other.

The basin gained national attention in 2001 when irrigation water to farmers was shut off to protect fish. Farmers were allowed to irrigate in 2002, but thousands of migrating salmon died in the Klamath River. Commercial fishermen were the next to suffer in 2006 when fishing was almost completely shut down because of low fish returns.

Bridging the divide

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which has yet to win final approval, is bringing the sides together.

Four dams would be removed and watershed restoration work would take place in the Klamath Basin. The Klamath River would get more water, aiding the salmon that are prized by fisherman and the tribes. Farmers would get less water, but the supply would be more predictable.

As part of the agreement, the Klamath Tribes could get the 90,000-acre Mazama Tree Farm, which is now owned by a timber company. The tribes would have to find $21 million in funding to buy it, Klamath Tribes Natural Resources Department Forester Randy Henry said.

"It was right in the middle of our reservation," Henry said.

In the 1950s, Congress adopted the Termination Act to liquidate reservation land and assimilate American Indians into white society, he said.

From the American Indian perspective, the federal government pushed tribes with valuable timber holdings — such as the Klamath Tribes — especially hard, Henry said.

Tribe members traded their reservation land for cash payments and were terminated as a tribe in 1954, he said.

The Klamath Tribes' status as a recognized tribe was restored in 1986 and now has 3,500 members, according to the tribes' website.

While the future ownership of the Mazama Tree Farm is still unknown, the Klamath Tribes are working on a partnership with the Fremont-Winema National Forests, the Lomakatsi Restoration Project and The Nature Conservancy to do years of forest restoration work on national forestland, which was also part of the tribes' ancestral lands, Henry said.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project could serve as a model. Lomakatsi, The Nature Conservancy, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the city of Ashland have teamed up on a multi-year project to thin fire-prone trees from the overcrowded Ashland Watershed.

Restoring the land

For now, the Klamath Tribes' forest- and watershed-restoration crew is putting the skills they learned in the classroom and on the ground to work.

In addition to working in the Rogue Valley, the Klamath Tribes have also done restoration and tree-thinning projects for the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and ranchers in the Klamath Basin, Henry said.

Crew member Justice Blacksun said they've learned everything from tree and plant identification to using the clinometer, a tool to measure slope angles and tree height.

When thinning, they keep an eye out for trees that are diseased or infested with mistletoe, a parasitic plant, said Parkins.

Crew member Plummie Wright, who spends his summers fighting forest fires, now knows how to thin trees and shrubs to reduce the intensity of wildfires that could otherwise ravage places such as the Ashland Watershed.

"As a firefighter, I like the appreciation we get back from the communities," he said. "People will put up signs that say, 'Thank you.' At the same time, I also get a sense of pride doing this."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.