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Cowboys, Indians, and land: an old saga's new twist

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Environmentalists often cite native Americans as a model for protecting nature. The groups are working together to restore Maine's Penobscot River and oppose natural-gas exploration on Navajo lands.

But just as the 1854 speech attributed to Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe ("We are a part of the earth and it is part of us") is now considered a myth, the collaboration of environmentalists and Indians has been tenuous at best. And today it's being tested, as some tribes assert their rights to exploit - as well as preserve - natural resources.

This is evident in the Klamath Basin of California and Oregon, where conservation groups oppose a plan returning extensive areas of national forest to tribes. They worry that native Americans will abuse the land. Critics say this has been the case in southeast Alaska, where Indian corporations have made vast clear-cuts on land they control.

Symbolically, it's a case of cowboys and Indians representing centuries-old, conflicting cultures: They have joined forces against a more modern version of land conservation that puts endangered species way ahead of resource development.

After years of conflict, the Klamath Tribes have met with area ranchers to allot water for wildlife refuges, crops, and cattle, while recognizing tribal water rights that go back to an 1864 treaty. Since the negotiations involve federal lands, administration officials have joined in. The heart of the plan is a transfer of 690,000 acres - most of the Winema and Fremont national forests - to tribal control.

The stakes are huge: more than 1,000 square miles of national forest valued at $1.4 billion. Perhaps more important, returning control to tribal authorities would set a precedent for tribes claiming unfair treatment under historic treaties with Washington.

Before white settlers arrived, the tribes (the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yahooskin Band of Snake Indians, collectively known as the Klamath Tribes) claimed some 22 million acres. Under pressure from homesteaders and the US Cavalry, the tribes in 1864 gave up all but about 2 million acres in return for the right to hunt, fish, and gather "in perpetuity."

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