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Senate endorses forest equity for Coquille Tribe

(SBG photo / Justina Coelho)

COOS BAY, Ore. -- After more than 20 years, the Coquille Indian Tribe "finally may be freed from unfairly cumbersome forest management rules," the tribe said in a news release Friday.

The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to pass the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act, which “decouples” the Coquille Tribal Forest from federal land management rules, the tribe said. The Coquilles are the only U.S. tribe bound by those rules.

“We are tremendously relieved and grateful to have the Senate address the disparity that has burdened our forest for so long,” said Tribal Chairwoman Brenda Meade.

Sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the bill cleared the House in July – the latest of DeFazio’s repeated attempts to decouple the Coquille Forest. Until Thursday, the legislation had never passed in the Senate.

The bill still needs President Donald Trump’s signature.

The Coquilles are one of three tribes being helped by the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act. The bill cedes 17,519 acres of federal land to the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, and 14,742 acres to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. It provides the two tribes a land base for the first time since their restoration as federally recognized tribes in the 1980s, the tribe explained.

Congress took a comparable step with the Coquille Tribal Forest in 1996, though on a smaller scale. The 5,400-acre Coquille Forest was intended to help the tribe support education, health care and elder services.

The 1996 legislation, however, tied the land’s management to the standards governing nearby federal lands, according to the tribe. They say this special legal burden – unique among U.S. tribes – hamstrung the Coquilles’ ability to manage their lands efficiently and effectively, Meade said.

Despite this legal handicap, the Coquille Tribe says they have achieved a consistent record of sustainable harvest, surpassing the performance of any federal forest in the region. It employs scientific forestry in tandem with environmental values that have protected its ancestral homelands for thousands of years.

Being freed from the federal rules will let the Coquilles make further management improvements, using a science-based, adaptive forest model that creates more wood-products jobs for the community, Meade said.

“Our people have managed these forests since time began,” Meade said. “We are excited to once again be in control of a small piece of our homeland.”

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