$40 million Swan Lake Hydro Energy Project compensation package rejected by Klamath Tribes General Council

A movement is underway for a referendum vote to accept the money

$40 million Swan Lake Hydro Energy Project compensation package rejected by Klamath Tribes General Council

Construction of a hydro pump storage project at Swan Lake has been a contentious issue within the Klamath Tribes since its proposal in 2011. At a tense General Council meeting on Sept. 30, 2023 present members voted to reject (77 to eight with eight abstentions) the settlement agreement, a compensation package exceeding $40 million. A large contingent of Klamath tribal members are opposed to the project breaking ground in spring, arguing that it will deface the cultural value and significance of the site. Others, however, see the compensation package as a necessary financial opportunity and are determined to bring the offer to referendum, allowing all eligible tribal members to vote for or against the settlement agreement.

In a 2016 letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, then-Tribal Chairman Don Gentry stated, “The Klamath Tribes firmly oppose the licensing and construction of the hydro energy project at this location because it would destroy and adversely affect many cultural and sacred resources in the Swan Lake Rim area that continue to have a great spiritual value to members of the Tribes.”

As recently as Jan. 31, 2020, current Tribal Chairman Clayton Dumont submitted a letter to Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP), the investment firm that owns and operates the project, representatives stating that the company “is about to blow a gaping canyon into the center of a massive Klamath/Modoc cathedral…”

Chairman Dumont and other Tribal Council Members had been attempting to send the latest offer to all 4,611 tribal members eligible for a Referendum Vote. The actions taken at the Sept. 30 meeting will now stop that from happening. Part of the motion that was passed stated, “We stipulate that there will be no future votes.” However, that has not stopped some tribal members from pursuing a referendum vote, as some tribal members see the compensation package as an opportunity for financial benefits that outweigh sacred concerns, disallowing the position of accepting the $40 plus million compensation as “blood money.” Some tribal members, however, see the compensation package as an opportunity to address many needs of the Tribes for social service and other programs, as well as a museum for the McLeod family heritage basket collection.

One tribal member, Harley “Duke” Kimbol, has thus far obtained 100 signatures as of late December as he seeks the necessary 250 signatures to move forward to a referendum vote. “I’ve had a little backlash over it, you know, when some people don’t like what’s going on,” he said. “But since the project is going to be built, and they’re offering your tribe $40 million compensation for some of the sites that will be ruined, I think we’d better look at that.”

If Kimbol is successful in acquiring the necessary signatures, a referendum vote will be distributed to all eligible tribal member voters.

According to Article XIV Section 1 of the Klamath Tribes Constitution: “Upon petition of two hundred fifty or more of the eligible voters of the Klamath Tribes, any action of the General Council shall be submitted to a popular referendum, and the vote of the majority of the qualified voters voting in such referendum shall be conclusive and binding, provided that at least four hundred fifty of the eligible voters shall vote in such election. Referendum vote shall be final.”

Kimbol emphasized that fewer than 100 tribal members voted at the General Council meeting in late September to turn down the offer. He also pointed out that there are over 4,600 voting members, and anyone eligible to vote on this matter should have been granted that right in the first place – though many contend that all members were granted a right to vote online during the General Council called meeting.

Addressing the matter, Tribal Council Member Ellsworth Lang, who voted to reject the compensation package, stated that all of the Tribes’ membership could attend the General Council meetings and noted that all members eligible to vote could do so by phone or via Zoom. He acknowledged that some tribal members may not be as involved or may not have the time or resources to log in. “And that’s an unfortunate thing when we’re talking about not having the ability,” Lang said. “It’s also a big job for the Klamath Tribes and Klamath Tribal Council to make sure our membership has the ability. And so that way, our folks do have the ability when somebody said that they didn’t because they didn’t get to vote.”

The CIP compensation package was proposed to be distributed as such: $22 million for land acquisition, $10 million for a tribal museum, $5 million for a sober living facility, $2 million for education, and promises to employ tribal members in union wage jobs.

“I just feel that, having driven medical transport and the bus for the Tribes for the past few years, that I can see the need for that money,” said Kimbol. “That could be used in every department of the Tribes that we have, and I know some tribal members that have died in the street that were really in need of mental health services. And I looked at the kids that don’t have a real family life and mothers taking care of kids on their own.”

Kimbol expressed that the needs of tribal children and their education are also important services that require more money. “And having worked with kids most of my life, I just feel there’s a big need,” he said. “And some of the folks that told me they don’t want to take that money or vote yes on that is because they said it violates our sovereign rights of the Tribes. And that’s one thing: we don’t ever want to give up our sovereign rights. But certain things can be negotiated. I talked to the people from the Swan Lake project, and they stated they want a good working relationship with the Klamath Tribes and Klamath County.”

Re-acquiring Klamath ancestral land is also a priority of the Tribes, said Kimbol, and with the $22 million earmarked for land acquisition in the compensation package, that could be a windfall of money for land acquisitions.

While Kimbol remains steadfast in his pursuit of a referendum vote, others are wary of accepting money from CIP for myriad reasons. The two glaring issues that elicited alarm from the faction opposed to accepting the $40 million compensation package are the forfeiture of sovereign rights and the desecration of sacred sites.

“We are waiving our sovereign immunity in this agreement, damage agreement, it was first called a mitigation agreement,” said Lang, explaining the potential negative implications of accepting the compensation package. “We’re also waiving any claims in the future – if anything negative happens with their equipment, for example.”

Lang stated that the Klamath Tribes is releasing all claims in the future for the licensing period during CIP’s Swan Lake hydro pump storage operation, which continues until around 2060. “So, we are relinquishing all claims in the future, whether it’s water or anything that has to do with the Swan Lake Hydro Project. In fact, it states that we will defend their project and we will defend the Swan Lake Hydro Project, CIP, and Rye Development if anything comes up that’s negative. And if we go against that, they will want all the money back. We will give them money back, and we still won’t be able to file a claim or suit against Rye, CIP, or the Swan Lake Hydro Project.”

The Swan Lake hydro pump project will be situated on private property just south and to the east of the Swan Lake rim – an area Lang visits several times a year and hunts in as well.

In October 2019, while walking in the area that will house the lower reservoir storage pond with other tribal members and a team from Rye Development, the company developing the project for CIP, Lang made a discovery.

“I personally had walked up a pretty small little area and found roughly 60 rock stack features, which is a lot of features in such a small area,” said Lang. “And immediately I said, ‘Man, this area’s very spiritual, it’s got a lot of energy here.’ And as we turned around and looked up at the site of Swan Lake and the Swan Lake rim, it was absolutely gorgeous. Our ancestors had come there for tens of thousands of years to pray, to have a ceremony, to have vision quests.”

Kimbol and other Elders at a November Elders’ Meeting expressed skepticism regarding the unique significance of Swan Lake. “I’ve never heard of anything going on there at all,” said Kimbol, commenting on his attempts to understand where Swan Lake’s spiritual significance and ceremonial practices came from. “But, you know, all of our land, all of our former reservation is spiritual.”

The Swan Lake project will use water to store and generate energy to supplement the electric grid. Water will move between two reservoirs at different elevations, with a powerhouse located closer to the lower reservoir; power will be stored when energy demand is low and generated when demand is high.

CIP’s project is a step towards realizing Oregon’s clean energy mandate, which stipulates that 100 percent of the electricity Oregonians use come from emissions-free resources by 2040.

Erik Steimle, Executive Vice President of Rye Development, noted some of the benefits of the Swan Lake Energy Storage Project in an email correspondence with the Klamath Tribes News.

Beyond the millions of dollars generated in tax revenue from the project that can be used for roads, schools, healthcare, and more, Steimle regards the project as a “vital piece of Oregon’s strategy to combat climate change and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

“We all want healthy and safe communities that protect our families’ and children’s health,” he continued. “In order to address the rise in temperatures and extreme weather events like wildfires, droughts, and floods, we need to build cleaner, renewable energy facilities like Swan Lake.”

While Rye Development and CIP were unsuccessful in offering the Klamath Tribes a compensation package, Steimle maintains that Rye is culturally attentive in coordinating the development of the project with the Tribes.

“We respect the rights of tribal members to take such an action,” said Steimle, referring to the called meeting that took place on Sept. 30, “and we plan to continue working with the Klamath Tribes to ensure the project will be built in a way that protects cultural, heritage and botanical sites of importance while providing clean energy infrastructure that will serve many generations.”

Steimle added that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) permitting process for hydropower projects is very robust, and there were many opportunities for public input and government-to-government consultation between FERC and the Klamath Tribes to ensure that potential environmental impacts and impacts to tribal cultural resources are documented, avoided and mitigated.

Lang, however, doesn’t believe that Rye Development can avoid and mitigate impacts on cultural resources and said at the Sept. 30 meeting that they are specifically going to demolish and remove at least 70 tribal sites in the lower pond. “They’re going to be installing transmission lines; they’re going to go through a village site. And where there are village sites, there are graves.” And he also passionately stated, “I’m going to stand in front of my ancestors one day, and I’m going to have to answer to them why I had the right to make a decision to destroy our powerful places of ceremony.”

Tribal members on both sides of the fence make compelling cases for accepting or rejecting the compensation package.

As for Kimbol, he remains convinced that a referendum ballot should be sent out to all eligible tribal voters. “We use all the schools in Klamath County,” he said. “If we want to do any shopping, we have to go to Klamath Falls to do that. So, our people are dependent on Klamath County, just like Klamath County is dependent on the Tribes. So, I feel we need to learn to work together.”