Tribe joins effort to protect and restore Forest Corridor

By Ron Karen

The Grand Ronde Tribe has joined a wide-ranging group of Tribal, public and private interests in a plan to protect, restore and enhance the South Santiam Community Forest Corridor.

On March 10, the Tribe joined other stakeholders in signing a Declaration of Cooperation for the project. David Harrelson, interim Cultural Protection manager, is the Grand Ronde Tribal lead on the project. At the signing, Harrelson was represented by Michael Karnosh, the Tribe's Ceded Lands manager, because he had bronchitis. The Tribe's Public Affairs Department also funded a reception for signers.

The Willamette National Forest has been seeking federal protection for this South Santiam corridor for about 15 years, said Karnosh. The culturally significant area is 12 miles long and covers more than 2,500 acres in Linn County in the foothills of the west Cascades.

The effort takes an "All Lands Approach," an initiative of the U.S. Forest Service. It was defined in the 2008 federal Farm Bill as recognizing that "public benefits as well as forest threats cross boundaries and are best addressed through integrated partnerships."

As a result, stakeholders include the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Siletz and Warm Springs, Linn County, the city of Sweet Home, the Sweet Home Economic Development Group, the South Santiam Watershed Council, the Army Corps of Engineers, Oregon State Parks, Willamette National Forest and Cascadia Timber Consultants, which represents the private timber company owning important parts of the area.

The project is backed by all the stakeholders as well as the state of Oregon and stake-holding federal agencies.

There are shared interests among participants and individual interests.

For Willamette National Forest, this development will be the fulfillment of a 15-year effort to bring this special area, virtually inaccessible, minimally protected and privately held back into the hands of the public to be protected and to provide many public uses not now available. Virtually all of the stakeholders, including the private owner, are fully behind the effort.

For Linn County and the city of Sweet Home, a community with 22 percent unemployment where 67 percent of students receive free or reduced cost lunches, the benefits are economic first, but also include the chance for the city to be rebranded as a hub of recreational opportunities and cultural tourism.

This timber town that has fallen on hard times has been losing its connection with the forest for years. The protection, restoration and development of the many valuable public uses of this forest corridor will provide jobs in educational and recreational tourism, and stewardship for the people of Sweet Home and Linn County.

The interest of the Grand Ronde Tribe is for greater protection of this culturally significant and historically relevant area.

The project will reconnect the Foster Reservoir in Sweet Home to the upland national forest in the South Santiam River corridor. The community forest will create public access along the picturesque clear, opal-colored South Santiam River as well as upland forests through the acquisition of private, industrial timberlands.

The acquisitions will reconnect the community of Sweet Home to historic Fish Lake Stagecoach and Remount station and Clear Lake resort, according to a project white paper. Plans will position the historic Santiam Wagon Trail to the top of the pass as backbone of the reconnections.

The Tribe's Land and Culture Department is working with the group toward "gaining federal ownership of key parcels of land that hold significant cultural resources and are in need of greater protection in the project area," said Harrelson.

The Tribal involvement in the project coincides with the Tribe's ongoing strong relationship with Willamette National Forest, which was reinforced in February with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Grand Ronde Tribe and Willamette National Forest.

As a result of that MOU, said Karnosh, "The Tribe has a seat at the table, plus a really, special direct line with the national forest."