Photo Credit: A story of broken trust and a forest in need along the Klamath River. Photo by Will Harling, Mid-Klamath Watershed Council
We had envisioned black oak woodlands and large madrones. Douglas firs and pines dotting the landscape. South-facing slopes showered with leaf litter from black oaks, enabling frequent controlled burns when the land lay dormant. Healthy hazel sticks for basket weaving and black-cap raspberries for eating. Salmon, deer, elk and acorn trees flourishing. Each year’s burn overlapping with the area blackened the year prior.
Three years of collaboration among federal, tribal, state and local participants. Dozens of meetings. And we had finally closed on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for what would be known as the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health (OCFR) project. It was obvious; merchantable timber was still the primary objective.
“We have seen this many times before,” says a collaborator.
“Once this decision is signed, you are going to do whatever you want,” says another.
Decades of distrust had been cautiously set aside in hopes that our holistic vision could coexist with the economic “bottom line.”
Yet this hope required objections to be filed, and more discussion ensued. We all agreed that something needed to be done. Wildfire was coming, most likely sooner than we would be ready for. So we had no choice but to find middle ground. As long as the previously negotiated protections for cultural resources remained in place and the follow-up burning would still occur as promised, the objections would be withdrawn. This agreement brought the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project to life, and it would surely keep the features of the Panamnik World Renewal Ceremonial District intact.
As a person specializing in government-to-government consultation and eco-cultural revitalization, I remained hopeful yet significantly reserved. Our Traditional Cultural Properties are of vital importance to us (PDF, 334KB).
“We agreed to develop the contract language together,” a collaborator stated over the phone, after receiving the now drafted language.
“There was no time; we had to meet the Region’s deadline,” the voice on the other end of the line replied.
“Don’t let the contract start in the most sensitive places,” I cautioned.
The reply? “Federal contracting regulations say that we can’t influence the contractor’s order of operations.”
The project immediately took a turn for the worse. A contractor who did not participate in the three-year collaboration started in one of the most eco-culturally sensitive places. A dozer plowed through a ceremonial trail, desecrating millennia of memories and ritual. Trees “protected” due to their association with the Tishawnik World Renewal Ceremonies were damaged with no regard for their sacred nature. The community called foul.
Within days, road blockades formed; activists were gearing up for a long-term fight. I called a meeting with the USDA Forest Service to see if we could find a way to turn this back around.
“Can we have a meeting with the contractor?” I asked.
“They tell me I can’t even go to the project site without permission from the contracting officer in Redding” replied the new forest ranger.
We worked diligently to find solutions, but the contracting regulations created barriers at every turn. We couldn’t find resolution and landed in court, the last place any of us wanted to be.
Our stories were told, and it was determined that there was a violation of the National Historic Preservation Act in failing to follow through with the identified protection measures. The judge asked me, “Do you want this project to go away?”
I sighed. “We agreed in the beginning that something needs to get done … we just need to do it right,” I said.
With that, we settled on a remedial plan that was partially negotiated, and partially prescribed by the judge.
The project resumed, but now with Tribal and local Forest Service staff on-site during much of the implementation. Many of the timber units were logged, some of the hand treatment work was done, yet follow-up burning still hasn’t happened. To this day, there are cut trees on the ground and units left untreated. The contractor stopped coming back, presumably due to low timber values, long-haul costs and a bitter taste in his mouth over the delays.
A failure? For the most part, I would say yes. However, and oddly enough, relationships among those initially collaborating improved, understanding was gained, and a foundation for building trust was established. Collaboration didn’t stop, it grew stronger.
The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Learning Network offered facilitated dialogue. We began to access the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network’s communication channels and peer network. We participated in the formulation of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. We strengthened our relationships with the state of California. We increased our capacity through hosting Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) and participating in the TREX coaches network. We helped spawn the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network. This local, state and national work renewed our vigor in community-based action and allowed us to connect again with local partners in the co-design of the Somes Bar Integrated Wildland Fire Management Project (“Somes Bar”).
Although Somes Bar is about twice the size of the OCFR project, we have learned from our past mistakes and feel ready for the challenge. We started differently where things went wrong before. We have seen consistency within the USDA Forest Service despite staff turnover. We have created a more inclusive process and established a shared identity through the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP). We settled on a planning area of 1.2 million acres. We are using stewardship agreement authorities that enable our collaborative group to stay engaged during all of the phases — planning, implementation, monitoring and adaptive management. And we have begun to look back at the OCFR project to see how we can bring it back to life under its original intent.
I still envision black oak woodlands and large madrones. Douglas firs and pines dotting the landscape. South-facing slopes showered with leaf litter from black oaks, enabling frequent controlled burns when the land lay dormant. Healthy hazel sticks for basket weaving, and black-cap raspberries for eating. Salmon, deer, elk and acorn trees flourishing. Each year’s burn overlapping with the area blackened the year prior. The only difference with this vision now is that it appears to be feasible.
Bill Tripp is the deputy director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. Bill, Will Harling, Karuna Greenberg and Clint Isbell are the four co-leads for WKRP. This collaborative group is embarking on a new era of shared stewardship. Together, they are changing the discussion regarding forest and fire management in the western Klamath Mountains and beyond.
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