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Karuk Tribe, conservation groups win suit against US Forest Service

by Dan Bacher

A federal judge this week found that Six Rivers National Forest violated the National Historic Preservation Act when it implemented a timber harvest plan in 2009.

The Forest Service billed the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction Plan (OCFR) as a wildfire suppression plan, but work on the ground "more closely resembled an industrial timber harvest that damaged ancient medicine man trails and ceremonial areas of the Karuk Tribe," according to a joint news release from the Karuk Tribe, Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath Forest Alliance and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

The plan itself was developed after years of collaborative meetings between Six Rivers National Forest, the Karuk Tribe, conservation groups and community members. In the end, the Tribe and the community signed off on the plan which aimed to thin, prune, hand-pile and burn 2,700 acres around Orleans in western Humboldt County. But what was implemented on the ground was not what Six River Forest Supervisor Tyrone Kelly represented on paper.

“We participated in good faith in the Forest Service’s collaborative process and we were assured that our sacred areas would be protected and our cultural values respected. It’s now obvious that those were hollow promises,” said Leaf Hillman, Natural Resources Director for the Karuk Tribe.

The Tribe found decks of large hardwoods lying across trails used by medicine men during the Tribe’s annual World Renewal Ceremonies. Other ceremonial areas were also desecrated by logging activities, contrary to commitments in the project plan.

Logging activity was halted after Tribal activists blockaded logging roads in December 2009. Soon after the Karuk Tribe along with the Environmental Protection and Information Center (EPIC), Klamath Forest Alliance, and Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center filed suit.

Important to the claims of the plaintiffs is the fact that portions of the Orleans project overlapped the Panamnik World Renewal Ceremonial District, which was nominated for National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The Karuk's spiritual Medicine Man Trail spans the district, and about half of it fell within treatment units of the Orleans project. Based on the evidence, the Court ruled that the logging activity within this area was a violation of the National Historic Preservation Act.

"In light of the finding that defendants violated the National Historic Preservation Act, defendants are hereby enjoined from conducting further implementation of the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project until appropriate remedial measures are established to bring the project into compliance," Judge Alsup ruled.

In addition to his role as Natural Resources Director, Leaf Hillman is a Karuk Ceremonial Leader in Orleans.

“Supervisor Kelley has no respect for this community or native cultures as is evidenced by their actions on the ground," stated Hillman. "With this court order we are hopeful that we can move forward to provide fire protection for our communities without sacrificing our sacred sites.”

For more information, contact: Craig Tucker, Spokesman, Karuk Tribe, cell 916-207-8294, or Kimberly Baker, Klamath Forest Alliance/EPIC, cell 707-834-8826.