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Disputed Territory 

Federal employees and the Yurok Tribe extend the age-old battle over American terra firma

Ah, Thanksgiving, America's annual revival of the feasting and merriment that accompanied the first potluck between Indians and Europeans in funny hats. If you'll recall, shortly after this inaugural, largely fictitious chow-down, the two sides settled into the next phase of their relationship -- 400 years of heated real estate disputes, often negotiated by way of wholesale massacre. Pass the spuds!

Thankfully, the violence has mostly abated. But the arguments over property continue. In fact, one such quarrel appeared locally just in time for Turkey Day.

Monday morning, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. -- sounded the alarm: The Yurok Tribe, the group said in a news release, has been furtively seeking federal approval for a massive land acquisition. Following a tip from a government employee, PEER learned that the Yurok tribe is quietly working on a bill that would give them ownership of thousands of acres of public land, including parts of Redwood National Park and Six Rivers National Forest, plus marine sanctuary waters surrounding Reading Rock, a sea stack five miles offshore that's currently under the auspices of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The tribe's plans appear to be laid bare in a series of e-mails and a three-page document that PEER obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Park Service. The document indicates that not only is the Yurok Tribe seeking public lands, they also want $50 million in federal funds to purchase nearby private lands from Green Diamond Resources, Inc. PEER's executive director, Jeff Ruch, condemned the tribe's proposal in no uncertain terms. "This would be an unprecedented and unjustified giveaway of treasured public resources," he said in the release.

Reached by phone later that day, Ruch said his group's worst fear here is that a bill might sneak its way into law before the end of the year. "We're heading into the dark days of the lame duck session of Congress," Ruch said, "and there's talk of putting together a massive omnibus public lands bill." Might the Yurok proposal hitch a ride on this Trojan Horse?

Nonsense, said Yurok Tribe Executive Director Troy Fletcher. In a phone conversation Monday afternoon, Fletcher said the tribe is indeed working on a proposal that would return to the Yurok about 2,400 acres of federal lands. Roughly half that land is currently part of Redwood National Park, while the other half is within Six Rivers National Forest, but according to Fletcher, all of it is inside reservation boundaries that were established by a series of executive orders starting in 1855. Included in these boundaries, which extend one mile from each bank of the Klamath River, is a historically significant ceremonial site at the river's mouth. The tribe simply wants to reclaim its rightful jurisdiction over the land and operate it as a tribal park, with public access intact. And contrary to the accusations of Ruch, Fletcher said the effort is not new, nor is it being conducted behind closed doors.

"We've been working on this in a public way for quite a while," he said. Cursory stories on the effort have appeared in both the Times-Standard and Crescent City's The Daily Triplicate, but Fletcher said that the public vetting process won't begin in earnest until the tribe completes a draft proposal and then brings that proposal before the boards of supervisors in both Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Such a hearing has already been scheduled for Jan. 11 in Del Norte County. "So if we were trying to pull a fast one on people, we're not doing a very good job," Fletcher quipped.

The documents obtained by PEER, he explained, were nothing more than early correspondence between the tribe's lobbyist (a former Department of the Interior appointee named T. Destry Jarvis) and a National Park Service superintendent in Crescent City. Since that correspondence exchanged hands last spring, some of the provisions in the tribe's proposal have been altered, while others -- like the $50 million request for private land acquisition -- have been jettisoned altogether. Fletcher expects a tentative draft will be ready for public perusal in the next month or so, and he said Ruch would have known as much if PEER conducted any fact-checking. "If he would have picked up the phone and called me, we would have been more than happy to let him know exactly what our plan is, which is to fully vet [the proposal] on a regional and national basis with the public, governmental agencies and environmental agencies."

Regardless of the approach, Ruch remains skeptical of the tribe's endeavor. For one thing, he said in a follow-up conversation Tuesday, he's not convinced that the tribe planned on being fully transparent. But more to the point, he doesn't buy their core argument -- that the land should be returned to the Yurok Tribe because it was theirs to begin with. "That would be an argument for tribal takeover of virtually all national parks," Ruch said.

PEER also has concerns about the process. The current director of the National Park Service -- one of several federal agencies that would be involved in the land transfer -- is Jonathan Jarvis, the younger brother of the Yurok Tribe's legislative point man, T. Destry Jarvis. "To our knowledge, [Jonathan Jarvis] has not recused himself from a whole range of other tribal interests represented by his brother, including the Yuroks and this proposal," Ruch said. A call to the elder Jarvis was not returned by deadline.

Environmental groups have yet to weigh in. With the inclusion of marine sanctuaries in the Yurok proposal, one agency sure to take an interest is Humboldt Baykeeper. Reached Tuesday afternoon, Executive Director Pete Nichols said the Yurok Tribe has "a really strong natural resources department and ethic." On the other hand, he reasoned, "I would be a little worried about removing established national parkland for alternative purposes. That would diminish the level of protection." But Nichols is confident that there will be time for collaboration with the tribe and federal agencies. "I look forward to seeing a draft," he said.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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