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Orofino Chamber: Color Us Skeptical

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, March 4, 2005

Community leaders say deep mistrust of federal government
prevents them from backing Snake River water deal

Business leaders in Orofino are jaded when it comes to the federal government and its promises.

For that reason alone they are skeptical when asked to believe the proposed settlement of the Nez Perce Tribe's water claims will help their community.

"You have to laugh," said Alex Irby, resource manager for the Konkolville Lumber Co. and an Idaho Fish and Game commissioner. "Look how many times we trusted the federal government."

Members of the Orofino Chamber of Commerce Public Affairs Committee said at a breakfast meeting Thursday the proposed deal has too much uncertainty and too many loose ends for them to endorse it.

The proposed agreement would give the tribe some water rights, land, money and partial control of two federal fish hatcheries in exchange for dropping most of its water claims in the Snake River Basin. The federal government helped the tribe negotiate the deal with the state and other water users.

Irby and others point to Dworshak Dam and reservoir as reason to mistrust the federal government. More than 25 years ago Orofino residents were promised Dworshak Dam would create a recreation mecca that would bring a steady supply of tourists and their money to the riverside community.

"We didn't give up much," said Irby of the decision to build the dam. "We only gave up the best B-run steelhead in the whole world."

Now the reservoir is lowered 80 feet between early July and mid-September each year to help salmon, making boating and other recreation less than ideal.

"If we had a full pool from Memorial Day to Labor Day like we were promised, that would be huge," said Keith Hanson, owner of Hanson Garage.

The town also once relied on a steady stream of logs from federal timber sales. But now, with several species of fish listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, those timber sales on the nearby Clearwater National Forest are few and local timber mills depend on state and private land for their logs.

When timber was king, rural counties with large amounts of federal land made up for their small tax bases by receiving one-fourth of all locally generated proceeds from the federal timber program. That money dried up when the federal timber program shrank. Counties now receive payments from the Craig-Wyden Bill to help make ends meet and that program is threatened by budget cuts.

"How much more can we take?" asks Hanson. "It's one thing after another that is impacting us."

The chamber members say the deal with the Nez Perce Tribe could hurt them even further. They fear logging on state land and some private land will be reduced because of a timber component in the agreement aimed at providing greater protection of water quality and salmon habitat.

That could lead to a reduction in the amount of money the community gets from state endowment funds for education and transportation and a reduction in the supply of logs to local mills, they say.

The agreement also calls for 11,000 acres of land to be transferred from the Bureau of Land Management to the tribe. That, combined with a $50 million trust fund the tribe could use to purchase private property, could lead to a further reduction in their tax base, they say.

Some of the provisions of the agreement that are supposed to be beneficial to the community are not, according to the chamber members. For instance, the agreement says the tribe and federal government will sign an agreement regarding the release of the last 20 feet of water from Dworshak Reservoir. The hope is that the agreement will lead to the water being released more slowly from the reservoir so the drawdowns are completed in mid-September instead of the end of August. But that drawdown regime has already been fought for by the state and tribe and largely adopted by the federal government during the past few years.

"It's kind of a moot point," said Dennis Harper, a chiropractor.

Former Idaho Rep. Chuck Cuddy, who is lobbying against the agreement, said the state should slow down and make sure all its provisions are understood before it passes legislation adopting it.

For instance, chamber members would like written assurances that steelhead and salmon produced at the Kooskia National Fish Hatchery continue to have their adipose fins clipped once the tribe takes over management of the hatchery.

The clipped fins signal to anglers the fish was raised in a hatchery and can be kept. Proponents of the agreement have said publicly the tribe will be required to remove adipose fins at the hatchery.

Members of the chamber insist their problems with the agreement have nothing to do with the tribe itself as some people, such as city of Lewiston attorney Don Roberts, have suggested.

"We are not a wild-eyed bunch of Indian-hating radicals," said Hanson. "We are just trying to look out for the best interest of this community."

They point out the agreement does not protect the four lower Snake River dams. Hanson says Orofino has supported keeping the dams in place even though he says it would probably be better for Orofino to have the dams removed. He says town leaders in Orofino have supported leaders in Lewiston and elsewhere to keep the dams because they believe it would benefit the region as a whole. Now he would like others to think of them.

"Walk in our shoes, live in our community and listen to our concerns and don't be so upset with us for opposing this thing," said Hanson.

Eric Barker
Orofino Chamber: Color Us Skeptical
Lewiston Tribune, March 4, 2005

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