Proposed landfill site adjacent to Klamath Marsh draws sharp rebuke from Klamath Tribes

Landfills are necessary, though no site is ideally suited to host one. However, some locations make for questionable proposals. A landfill being proposed to occupy 806 acres of land south of Lenz Siding Road between Highway 97 and Klamath Marsh raised the ire of the Klamath Tribes leaders. The marsh is one of the largest in the Intermountain West and the spiritual heart of the Klamath People.

Due to its high water table, the Klamath Marsh is vulnerable to landfill leachate, which is alarming the Klamath Tribes and environmentalists.

An application for the landfill was filed by a developer, Don Jensen, from Salem, Ore. The site of the landfill is designated as Exclusive Farm Use (EFU). This EFU falls under Article 54 of the Klamath County Land Development Code and states: “The purpose of the Exclusive Farm Use Zone is to protect and maintain agricultural lands for farm use, consistent with existing and future needs for agricultural products. The EFU zone is also intended to allow other uses compatible with agricultural activities, protect forests, scenic resources, and fish and wildlife habitat, and maintain and improve the quality of air, water, and land resources of the county.”

The second sentence is incompatible with developing a landfill. When pressed on the counterintuitive nature of this proposal, Klamath County Planning Director Erik Nobel conceded that while a landfill is not necessarily compatible with maintaining and improving the air quality, water, and land resources in its immediate vicinity, there are conditional use permits in Article 54 that would satisfy establishing a landfill.

“But we also have in there that we allow it through a conditional use permit,” said Nobel during an interview with the Klamath Tribes News. “So that’s where we’re saying, ‘Okay, conditionally, we think we can allow this. What kinds of conditions can we get so it’s not affecting the air; it’s not affecting the wildlife; it’s not affecting the land use around it.’”

A public hearing is tentatively scheduled to be held at the Klamath County Fairgrounds in Linham Hall on Aug. 27 at 6 p.m*. After public testimonies are taken the proposal will then be presented and heard by the Klamath County Planning Commission for consideration. The decision will be final if no one appeals it.

Should the proposal pass with no appeals, conditions discussed and accepted at the public hearing would be implemented. “We certainly could talk about that at the hearing and say, ‘Here’s a condition we want – no higher than the lodgepole trees out there.’ Okay, so you’re capped at like 50 feet,” said Nobel, citing a hypothetical condition regarding the capped height of the landfill.

An aerial view of a proposed landfill adjacent to Klamath Marsh.

As of this writing, there is no clear information indicating where the trash would come from. In a letter to the Klamath County Planning Department, Klamath Tribes Chairman Clayton Dumont expressed dismay and skepticism regarding the proposal. “No one in their right mind could seriously contemplate welcoming thousands of tons of trash from (based on our understanding of the word ‘regional’ as it is routinely used by this industry) multiple states into a place so deeply loved by so many,” Dumont stated in the letter.

Dumont cited extensive research documenting Klamath Marsh’s decline by the Klamath Tribes in partnership with the United States Geological Survey in the letter. A landfill in close proximity to Klamath Marsh would have detrimental effects on the marsh’s unique ecology, further accelerating damage to its integrity.

Klamath Tribes’ Environmental Coordinator, Alta Harris, facilitates communications and cooperation between the Tribes’ Natural Resources, Culture and Heritage, and Ambodat Departments and their interactions with outside agencies.

“When it comes to groundwater, you’re losing water from the stream into the groundwater,” said Harris, describing the functions of a healthy marsh. “So, you’re collecting all of that water coming in from the system – the forest, the neighboring mountains – all of those things are collecting in the marsh. It’s recharging the groundwater, it’s being filtered, sediment is being deposited, and then it’s carrying on out.”

Ideally, large marshes should collect sediment from the ecosystem. Water runoff from forests and mountains picks up sediment in the form of organic material and soil. The runoff deposits and traps sediment in the marsh, filtering the water through the wetland systems before, in this case, joining the Williamson River in the Klamath Marsh.

“When you don’t have those marshes functioning the way they are with the amount of water that they historically had,” explained Harris, “not only are you no longer collecting that sediment, you’re actually contributing sediment to the system – into Upper Klamath Lake and beyond. So, because that soil is no longer wet and trapped, it can also be moved out. When you divert the water and make it run through more quickly than it has historically, then you’re actually picking up years of trapped sediment and adding it to the system. So those factors could be contributing to water quality problems.”

Research suggests this is the scenario as man-made irrigation ditches have diverted water from its historical path north of Upper Klamath Lake. Potential leaching from a landfill, especially at the proposed location, would exacerbate this situation, further contaminating the groundwater and river water that feeds into Upper Klamath Lake. If the bottom of the landfill is below the water table, then contamination in the form of leachate – heavy metals, pesticides, and carcinogens seeping through the earth and into natural water reservoirs – becomes highly probabilistic.

Recognizing a potential cascade of problems downstream, Dumont wrote in his letter to the County Planning Department: “Imagine adding an array of poisons to the already tenuous aquatic lifelines of countless plants, animals, and human beings! I urge you to take a close look at the enclosed map depicting the flow of groundwater from north to south below the proposed landfill site moving directly toward major rivers and ultimately Ews (Upper Klamath Lake) and the Klamath River.”

A map depicting the flow of groundwater from north to south below the proposed landfill site. (Map courtesy of Oleksandr Chebanov)

Ambodat Department Director Mark Buettner pointed out the important role the Williamson River, flowing through the marsh, plays with regard to the unique wildlife of the region; unique species include redband trout, Klamath largescale sucker, Miller Lake lamprey, tui chubs, and sculpins. The riparian and marsh habitats support the threatened Oregon Spotted frog, rare Yellow Rail, and a large number of water bird species.

“Many of these species would be harmed by landfill leachate, which will contaminate the subsurface groundwater that is hydrologically connected with the Williamson River and Klamath Marsh,” said Buettner. “Approval of this project would be a major blow to the Tribes’ efforts to restore the Upper Williamson River and Klamath Marsh ecosystems.”

The Klamath Tribes recently secured $2 million to begin restoring the entire marsh system and expect to secure another $3 million by spring 2025. According to Dumont, if Conditional Use Permit 01-24 is approved, decades of effort already expended and decades of work planned for the future are at risk of unraveling.

“These marshes are very important for charging the entire system,” said Harris, emphasizing the important ecological role Klamath Marsh serves Upper Klamath Lake and Klamath River. “So, you have the possibility to get effects outside of the project area.”

Ecological concerns are not limited to water and fish. Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is host to an array of birds, serving as a major stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. The danger for birds – yellow rail, sandhill crane, waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds, to name a few – lies not only in a disruption of migratory patterns but also in digesting garbage from a landfill in close proximity to the marsh. The neighboring pine forests also include Rocky Mountain elk and the great gray owl as permanent residents.

Klamath Marsh has been home to the Klamath Indians for generations. The first 16,400 acres of the Refuge were purchased from the Tribes in 1958 with Federal Duck Stamp funds. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Northwestern University)

Tule and Lower Klamath Lakes – two other nearby refuges for birds and comprising parts of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, like Klamath Marsh – have experienced water shortages so severe that officials have either limited or completely closed waterfowl hunting the past three seasons. If the proposed landfill adjacent to Klamath Marsh is built, migratory birds would likely be further deprived of viable feeding and nesting grounds in the Klamath Basin.

Klamath Tribes’ first foods have also been on the decline. “The marsh at one point was covered in wocus and a place our peoples could go any time of year to harvest foods,” said Ambodat Environmental Scientist Trainee Shahnie Rich. “Today, the wocus on the marsh is minimal and not always good quality dependent on conditions any given year.”

The applicant and developer, Jensen, previously planned to buy thousands of acres in Christmas Valley, Lake County, to establish a landfill. That formerly proposed location is approximately 80 miles east of Jensen’s current bid next to Klamath Marsh.

As of this writing, Jensen said he was unavailable for comment but would speak with Klamath Tribes News at a later date.

Prior to his Lake County application, Jensen had little experience in the landfill business, save for a stint with Simco Road Regional Landfill in Elmore County, Idaho. The privately owned landfill he was once affiliated with, for which he served on the board, is facing a lawsuit from the county. Elmore County alleges Idaho Regional Waste Services, owner of Simco Road Regional Landfill, was noncompliant after it continued operations despite the revocation of its conditional use permit for environmental violations.

According to BoiseDev reporting, IRWS first filed suit against the county, arguing that “the county illegally revoked the landfill’s conditional use permit to operate after a ‘long-running, targeted and illegal campaign’ against the IRWS and its operations of the landfill.”

According to an Oregon Public Broadcasting article, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality fined the landfill $20,000 for multiple violations in 2019. These violations included the landfill itself catching fire multiple times and burying tires at the site – an act banned in landfills in Oregon – in years prior. One report from 2018 noted: “It appeared free liquids were being poured into a dump truck bed, which then released the liquids to the landfill.”

Klamath County Planning Director Erik Nobel said he was not familiar with the violations in Idaho and had not conducted research on Mr. Jensen at the time of this writing.

Should the proposal pass, the Klamath Tribes plan to appeal. “The Klamath Tribes have a deep and well-documented connection to ?ewksi, the Klamath Marsh area,” stated Dumont. “As the site of our largest precontact village, it sustained us from time immemorial until its relatively recent, human-caused ill-health. It is a sacred place.”

*This article was updated to reflect a change in date of the landfill public hearing, which was originally scheduled for April 23, but was then pushed back to May 28 and now rescheduled tentatively for Aug. 27 at the Klamath County Fairgrounds in Linham Hall at 6 p.m.

Multiple tribal projects in Chiloquin underway to alleviate tribal housing needs, providing affordable and transitional housing

There is a housing crisis across the nation and in Klamath County – and Chiloquin is no exception. To address the problem locally, the Klamath Tribes Housing and Planning Departments have launched several projects to assist tribal members in finding permanent or transitional housing in Chiloquin. The two men overseeing the projects are Klamath Tribes’ Housing Director Kenneth Ruthardt and Planning Director Jared Hall.

To stimulate the economy during Covid, the CARES Act was passed by Congress and signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2020. Building upon the CARES Act was the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021. The Klamath Tribes is a huge beneficiary of this stimulus package. With $350 billion allocated across various levels of government, $20 billion was earmarked for tribes alone – $1 billion of which was to be evenly distributed by approximately 570 eligible tribes – a substantial sum.

“So, we really went through that ARPA legislation to figure out what could we do as far as projects, and the one thing that became apparent to me in the new ARPA legislation is they defined construction projects – capital, they call them capital projects,” said Hall. “It really laid out the rules and regulations of that. And then they also really exemplified the fact that they want tribes to focus on housing, the housing crisis, and getting new housing stock.”

A pre-construction meeting was held on Dec. 4 to lay out the initial course of construction for a triplex home and a fourplex in Chiloquin. The first step is to clear the land of old structures, trees, and brush. A construction crew started this work in late December. The Klamath Tribes Road Maintenance crew also started site demolition on the Juda Jim lot in December, with the demolition of the old building structure that was not being occupied. This provided tribal employees with intense heavy-equipment training hours and helped demonstrate tribal self-sufficiency by performing work on a tribal project.

The triplex, providing three homes for tribal elders, will be downtown between Chocktoot and Yahooskin Streets, while the fourplex, providing another four families with homes, will be situated on Juda Jim Street. The affordable housing will be for rent by low-income families. The properties are expected to be completed by fall 2024.

“It’s light site work: clearing and grubbing,” said Hall, referring to the triplex construction commencing in mid-December. “They’re going to prep the access roads, do some pre-stormwater work. It’s going to be a 0.26-acre lot adjacent to the city’s buildings on Chocktoot Street.”

Construction for the fourplex will break ground later this winter. The construction contract for this project is still in process. The anticipated completion date for both projects is Dec. 30, 2024.

In addition to the eight existing tribal homes at a property called “55 Acres,” next to the goos oLgi gowa community center, Ruthardt anticipates completing an additional 16 rental homes for low-income families.

The ARPA grant will help fund 23 units at “55 Acres,” in addition to Hall’s multiplex units in downtown Chiloquin.

Ruthardt’s job extends beyond directing the development of proposed units. Renovations on existing properties occupied by tribal members also factor into his work and finding homes for tribal members. Renovations include installing 56 new woodstoves, repairing water and fire damages, and demolishing and rebuilding one home.

“Renovations, dropping the rental list down,” said Ruthardt, pointing to a whiteboard of designated projects in the pipeline. “We have ongoing developments. At Melita’s, there are the 14 hotel rooms, 13 tiny homes, probably four workplace homes, and the storage unit, which is phase three – that’s going to be determined.”

The Klamath Tribes’ rental assistance program, similar to Section 8 and providing vouchers to landlords, had a waitlist of 141 people as of March 2023. That number was down to 63 at the end of November.

The building formerly housing a restaurant called Melita’s on Highway 97 is scheduled to be renovated. The former motel is located immediately behind the restaurant. This project is funded through an Oregon Community Foundation grant.

“Melita’s project should be imminent. It’s approved,” said Ruthardt. “So, we’re going to refurbish or renovate the 14 rooms, and they’re going to have kitchenettes in them for the guests. And hopefully, we’ll start occupancy, probably in May. But primarily, the guests are going to be elders.”

The former Melita’s restaurant building will consist of three offices, a de-escalation room, and a single kitchen equipped with a refrigerator in case a guest wishes to have family over and cook. The space will also have a community room. On one side of the building will be the restaurant, and it will retain its former name. There can be a restaurant business so long as all the proceeds go to helping the emergency housing crisis.

“The Melita’s project is meant for people struggling to find housing, lost a job, or you’re an elder who, maybe something just happened, or you move back to this area,” Ruthardt said, “and you’re having trouble finding housing, you can get in there. And then there’s the wraparound services to help them get back on their feet. And then the goal is to get them into permanent housing.”

Another project to help alleviate Chiloquin’s housing crisis is the construction of 13 tiny homes on a former RV lot located next to Melita’s. Where the funding for this project will come from is still undetermined as of this writing. The 13 tiny homes, the multiplexes downtown, along with the 16 homes to be built at the “55 Acres” property will accommodate 36 people from the waitlist for the low-rent program. When renovations are completed, the current waitlist, comprising 148, is expected to drop.

“My goal is to take it down to zero,” said Ruthardt. “That’s what we’re shooting for. It’s not just me. I have a team behind me; we’re building that and working to do it. People would like to move back to Chiloquin; I’m seeing more elders would like to move back here, but there’s no housing. It’s a huge problem. So, finding housing for them to live and work, that’s going to be a huge challenge, but we’re determined.”

Klamath Tribal Health & Family Services to open transitional emergency shelter

Homelessness is an epidemic affecting Americans in great proportions. Over the past six years, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Oregon has increased by 63 percent to 14,655. Locally, it is estimated that more than 300 American Indian people are homeless.

In 2021, the Klamath Tribes approved a resolution outlining a plan and strategy for creating a homeless services initiative. The initiative is all-encompassing to help struggling tribal members become self-sustaining – providing housing and direct access to mental health, substance use, medical, dental, and pharmacy services, thus enabling participants to regain their dignity and become self-sufficient. The location of the shelter will be located at 310 S. Fifth Street in Klamath Falls.

Chanda Yates, the Health General Manager for Klamath Tribal Health and Family Services, is tasked with setting up and maintaining the program. After securing grant funding from the Oregon Health Authority, she began hiring in Nov. 2022. She wrote the job description for the Klamath Tribes’ Homeless Services Director and ultimately hired Marci McComas in the position. From there, they began building the entire program, from concept to opening day.

“Ours is emergency shelter – from right off the streets,” said Yates, describing the broad concept of the program. “We provide intensive case management to individuals to get them stable enough to go in to housing, whether it’s community housing, or individual studio units, or whatever might be available, so that they can successfully remain housed.”

The capacity will be from 12 to 20 individuals any night, and Yates anticipates that most participants – the term KTH&FS prefers to use for individuals in its program – will be men because that is the demographic applying for shelter.

“Our program is going to be based on demand and first come, first served,” said Yates. “So, if we happen to get a lot of of applications from women, they’re going to be considered in the order in which they’re received plus their circumstance.”

There are specific eligibility requirements that are designed to be “low barrier” in order to help those in greatest need.

Homeless Services Director Marci McComas said that priority will be given to people coming out of detox or medical facilities. Participants applying have to be at least 18 years old, a Klamath tribal member or descendant, and they have to meet certain criteria on a background check.

“That being said,” said McComas, “there is the opportunity for adjudication, depending on what offenses they have, because we are a low barrier shelter. So, we understand that our participants are going to have backgrounds.”

Showers and restrooms are provided, as well as breakfast and dinner. “We don’t provide lunch because we want to encourage them to get out into the community and socialize,” said McComas. “They can go to our Engagement Center. We serve lunches there and will always feed our participants if need be, but we’re trying to encourage them to get out, move around, and be active in the community.”

The transitional emergency shelter is the first shelter the Klamath Tribes has ever operated, and to the Tribes’ knowledge, the first of its kind in Klamath County.

Donations will help forge a bond between the Tribes, other community partners, and community members. Donations are a way for individuals and communities to bring awareness and positively make a difference. McComas said that there are two ways in which people can donate or be involved. One, donations are accepted at the Engagement Center at 633 Main Street. Travel-size toiletry items, clothing, shoes, gloves, hats, and socks will be appreciated. And two, a meal train will be activated: community members can sign up for different days of the month to provide a meal for up to 20 people at the shelter.

“One of the biggest things we’re wanting to do is we’re wanting to give these tribal members their dignity back,” said McComas, citing the program’s mission. “We’re wanting them to be able to build a life and be successful. We’re kind of coming alongside them, helping them address whatever barriers they have, and just getting them able to integrate back into society.” The Klamath Tribes calls this to be in good health again.

Integrating participants back into society will require major collaboration to succeed. McComas noted that her program will be collaborating closely the Youth and Family Guidance Center, or YFGC, run by Klamath Tribal Health.

“And YFGC will provide a lot of support to our participants in the sense of like substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and other coaching/counseling,” continued McComas. “But we will also probably work very closely with a lot of other community partners within our community, because basically, our case managers in a lot of ways are sort of like resource brokers. We obviously can’t provide all the services that our participants will need. So, for things like medical and dental, we’ll work very closely with our clinics within Klamath Tribal Health. And basically, we’re there to align them with the services they need, if that’s within Klamath Tribal Health, that’s great; but if not, wherever need be.”

Yates stressed the importance of building trust with the participants and elaborated on some of these individuals’ backgrounds. Because this population is in transition on a regular basis and their family are other people who live on the street, building trust faces some obstacles. Yates further stated that potential participants usually don’t have any identification because it’s been lost or stolen.

“We have to help them fill out the application, help them get their tribal ID, and help them get their identification card,” said Yates. “The whole goal and the whole emphasis of this program is intensive case management. So, we’ve found through our research and best practices in the homeless arena that you can put a homeless person in a shelter and say, ‘This is your house, this is your room.’ You can go to it nine times out of 10 and they’re never there, because they want to be with the society that they’ve created and feel safe with, which is those that are on the street. And it takes them a really long time to build trust that this is my unit and this unit is my home. And when they build that trust, they’ll start coming back to their unit more.”

They can come to their unit under the influence, explained Yates, so long as they’re living and behaving within the rules of the program. “And we’re doing that because no other program is taking that low barrier of trying to bring stability and trust back into their lives, to bring some normalization back into their lives. No matter how simple and small it may feel, we want to make sure that they have that. For example, to engage them, we’re asking them to come to the Engagement Center and at Halloween to carve pumpkins. It may seem ridiculously simple, but they have not had that opportunity to be welcomed anywhere: to come in, to have something warm, to plug in their cell phone, if they happen to have one, and to get something to eat. And to do an activity that’s just social, there’s no expectation of them to do anything except be there with others.”

Staff will be on-site 24 hours a day, which is very important to a program like this. Staff is currently going through intensive training to ensure they are well-equipped to deal with crisis and de-escalation.

As of this writing, some positions are still open, and anyone interested can go to the Klamath Tribal Health & Family Services building at 3949 S. Sixth Street to fill out an application or online. McComas stressed that they will have a case manager and a peer support specialist assigned specifically to shelter participants: “The case management piece is really, really what makes these types of programs work.”

The property of this program will be a gated community. A vinyl, aesthetically pleasing fence will be installed around the entire perimeter of the property to provide privacy for the neighbors as well as the residents of the program. No visitors are allowed unless accompanied by a staff member.

The transitional emergency shelter program is established with a clear, defined set of rules and policies. Although participants are not required to be clean and sober to enter the program, they are required to participate in regular case management that will address any barriers they may have. This includes an invitation to receive care for substance abuse and mental health conditions. There is a very strict no Drugs and Alcohol policy in place that will be strongly enforced. Drugs and Alcohol being brought onto the property will result in an immediate exit.

For neighbors concerned about the impact on the neighborhood, programs similar to this have proven not only to improve the appearance of local neighborhoods but are also statistically proven to reduce the amount of emergency calls to police in the residing areas. “We are here to support the neighbors, address any of their concerns and to help homeless people that may be congregating near their homes,” said Yates. “We are bringing solutions to the neighbors they previously did not have.”

For individuals seeking shelter and who meet the requirements, applications can be sent in via email to the homeless services department at [email protected] or dropped off in person at the KTH&FS Engagement Center at 633 Main Street, Klamath Falls 97603.

Klamath Tribes Human Resources Department seeks to increase the workforce

Klamath Tribes’ Human Resources Director, Laurel Robinson, has worked in HR for the Klamath Tribes since 1996 at Tribal Health and Tribal Administration. She is confronted with issues plaguing any HR Department, from a diminished workforce to worker burnout and unnecessary hiring barriers. She sat down with the Klamath Tribes News to discuss some of these problems and her approach to improving the situation.

“We’re getting less and less applications,” said Robinson. “With a limited number of workers in the local area, we are struggling to fill positions.”

Robinson said a majority of the applicants are people already living in Chiloquin or Klamath Falls and surrounding areas. However, a lack of housing is a huge barrier to recruiting people from outside of the area. “As the workforce diminishes, there are only so many people in Klamath County,” she said. “We’re basically taking workers from other organizations in the area. We have to be competitive with benefits and salaries to attract workers to make the move.”

Sometimes, she explained, people who were working at Tribal Health and Family Services will transfer to Tribal Administration and vice versa or workers will transfer within the organization, which still leaves an open position to fill. Setting like-pay scales, where the pay is comparable for similar jobs throughout various departments, is high on Robinson’s agenda. She said some departments have more money to spend and, therefore, can spend more on hiring. Like-pay scales, in theory, would discourage people from lateral moves, doing the same job for a different department. “I set standard pay ranges for like positions so we could reduce the lateral movement,” she said. “But I’m still finding a lot of internal movement.” She added that she prefers individuals not to stay in positions they are discontent with.

Robinson said it is ideal that workers are interested in what they are doing, as this helps bolster retention rates for any given department. “Sometimes the individual will transfer because they prefer a different type of work, or they prefer the supervisor in another department, or they’re avoiding burnout,” she said. “Maybe you’ve done something for a while and want to try something different. Or maybe the pay is better.”

The Klamath Tribes face the challenge of internal movement as current employees change positions and departments, while other challenges have been recruiting individuals who have criminal backgrounds, whether misdemeanors or felonies. Many assume that they won’t be hired because of their past. Or non-tribal individuals who assume the Tribes only hire tribal members and thus don’t apply for open positions.

There are also cases where some individuals might have been addicted to hard drugs or have a criminal record from decades ago. Robinson disagrees with the notion that a former convicted felon should be perpetually punished. “You paid your debt to society. We don’t need to keep punishing you,” she said. “How can you rebuild your life if you can’t get a job?”

She said one individual’s background check is not going to matter unless the crime is recent or they apply for a position that requires clearing a specific background requirement.

As for hiring non-tribal members who have not worked for a tribe, Robinson noted the unique challenges these individuals might initially face. Learning the tribal side of things is critical because the tribe has its own government and is a government within a government where tribal laws and specific Federal rules apply. State employment laws do not apply to Tribes who are sovereign nations. Tribes have a lot of rules to follow that are not required of private industry. This makes the learning curve more challenging for people who have not had the experience of working for a tribe.

With the legalization of marijuana use, pre-employment drug testing played a large role in discouraging potential hires from applying. Marijuana use, being detectable in the human body for up to a month for occasional use, impeded the application process for employers and employees. When positions have a short open recruitment period, there is no possibility to clear the system for drug testing. “We were missing a lot of opportunities for hiring,” said Robinson. “Since the goal of drug testing is to ensure we have a drug free workplace, we have stopped pre-employment testing and use suspect testing, unless the position requires extra caution such as bus drivers, for example.”

Around 80 percent of the current Klamath Tribes workers are enrolled members of a tribe. However, the goal is to increase that percentage and train more tribal members to join the workforce and fill positions. Robinson also stressed the need for more on-the-job training, coaching, and increased work competency training for advancement opportunities in order to garner interest in working for the tribe as well as for retaining current employees. 

“Director-level positions are harder to fill,” said Robinson. “One part of my strategic plan is to have the departments implement succession planning so we’re hiring from the bottom up, not the top down. That way, knowledge doesn’t walk out the door when somebody leaves. You train up so that there’s always somebody ready to step up as opposed to now they’re gone, and we have to try and figure out what processes they knew and didn’t teach others to do.”

Robinson acknowledges that some employees, regardless of the organization for which they work, can be territorial in wanting to keep the knowledge to themselves, which can hinder succession planning.

Robinson has adjusted pre-requisites and salaries for a variety of jobs in an effort to fill positions in a location with a limited workforce. She encourages job prospectors to view the job listings posted on the Klamath Tribes website, which change often as positions become available. Lucrative jobs are being offered by the Tribes, she said, with many more opportunities to come as the Tribes’ workforce needs are quickly expanding.

Klamath Tribes’ Quail Trail Transit Program adds 2 new buses to existing fleet; 2 new SUVs for medical transport program

The Klamath Tribes Quail Trail bus service will be adding two brand-new Ford F-450s, each with a capacity of 14 passengers, to its current fleet to supplement routes between Chiloquin, Klamath Falls, and Beatty. They are wheelchair accessible and more fuel-efficient than the current buses. Two of the four current buses, each with a capacity of 22 passengers, are Ford F-550s. But with bigger engines and thus costlier repairs after breakdowns, the time is now for the new purchases. The Tribes also operate two older Ford F-450s – though they are also near the end of their tenure due to high mileage.

Michele Carson, Transit Program Manager within the Planning Department, noted the difficulties in maintaining the status quo of the fleet. “They’re much bigger breakdowns,” she said, pointing out that breakdowns happen several times in a calendar year. “If it breaks down, you’re going to pay between $3,000 and $5,000 every time you hit the shop.”

According to Carson, the old F-550s each have around 380,000 miles under their belts, while the F-450s have accrued around 200,000 miles each. This kind of mileage is not sustainable. “We need to be rid of them,” Carson added, “but we are going to keep one behind just in case we need it.”

An Oregon Department of Transportation Needs-Based CARES Grant is funding the purchase of the two new buses.

In addition to the two new buses, the Tribes is acquiring two new SUVs for medical transport to various medical facilities throughout Oregon state, including Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls. Potential passengers just have to meet the criteria to be eligible. “The criteria are an individual must be 60 or older; if they’re disabled and under 60, we can do that; the individual doesn’t have to be a tribal member, and it’s open to the public. All of our grants are open to the public,” said Carson. The Transit Program contracts with Translink, an Oregon Health Plan program, to ensure medical transport for those seeking assistance.

The Transit Program endured low passenger counts on its daily routes as a result of COVID, and those numbers have steadily recovered since the pandemic was officially declared over by the Biden Administration in April 2023.

As a result of lower passenger turnout, Carson is not concerned about the lower passenger capacity of the two new buses, though she does anticipate ridership returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“We struggled during COVID because you had to be so many feet apart,” said Carson. “We weren’t getting the people because so many folks were afraid to ride.” She added that her routes never recorded a single case of COVID.

In 2020, HEPA filters were added to the buses to help mitigate the spread of COVID. Carson beamed with pride while explaining the diligence of her team.

“If a passenger got on with even just a sniffle, John was always putting the filters on,” said Carson, explaining the commitment of the drivers. “And they were manual. So, you could just flip a switch, and they would be on. And our other full-time driver, Pat, keeps those buses tidy. She’s up at 4 a.m. and has those buses ready by 5 a.m.”

Carson and her office co-worker, Transit Program Specialist Ron Hugulet, staffed the program. They manage two full-time and seven part-time bus drivers and medical transport for individuals requiring assistance.

Recovering the passenger count to pre-pandemic numbers will require time and patience. Carson pointed out that the buses were generally half-occupied on any given route before the pandemic. Now, she speculates that they average 50-65 passengers a day on all routes combined, which is still a dramatic improvement from peak COVID. The routes accumulate 310 miles throughout the course of the day.

Carson also emphasized the importance of the routes to the citizens of Chiloquin and Klamath Falls. For individuals from Chiloquin, which lacks adequate grocery stores, accessing grocery stores and food produce in Klamath Falls becomes a health matter. Likewise, some Klamath tribal members living in Klamath Falls ride the bus to the clinic in Chiloquin, said Carson. People also ride the bus to grade, high, college, and work.

Buying the two lower-capacity buses is necessitated by the fact that any bus exceeding a capacity of 14 passengers requires its driver to hold a Commercial Driver’s License or CDL. “And if they do pursue it,” said Carson, explaining most individuals’ motivation for getting a CDL, “they’re pursuing it to go do trucking.” Despite some of the challenges the Transit Program has faced in recent years, Carson expressed optimism for the future of her department, “Just get on a bus, come ride,” she said. “It’s a great ride when you don’t have to drive that dangerous road every day.”

Klamath Tribes working to complete a new courthouse and expand judiciary powers

While tribes such as the Cherokee or Navajo have robust judicial systems capable of adjudicating a wide variety of cases – though the Federal Government prosecutes major, felony cases – the Klamath Tribes is making strides in expanding its own judicial capacities. The Klamath Tribes is expanding its law codes and working on constructing a new Tribal Courthouse.

The Tribal Courthouse is located at 35601 South Chiloquin Road in Chiloquin, across from the Klamath Tribes Culture and Heritage Community Center on Highway 62. The building was formerly a church, and the building and land were purchased with CARES funds – a stimulus package designed to stimulate the economy during COVID-19. With the subsequent round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, the application to renovate the tribal court was successful, obtaining approval from the tribal legal team and tribal council.

“It’s scheduled to be completed in April,” said Jared Hall, Klamath Tribes Planning Director. “And so, hopefully, the tribal court team will be moving back in May.”

“The general contractor had several projects they were in the middle of and closing out,” he continued, explaining just one of the many obstacles in securing the building’s renovation from start to finish. “So, we had limited crews over there doing stuff, but they’re starting to get more bodies over there, and they can make some more progress.”

While the physical manifestations of establishing a judiciary – building a courthouse – are generally straightforward, understanding the course that brought the Tribes to this point is less clear.

Chiloquin has a reputation for having been a lawless place in the past – a point not lost on some residents born here decades ago. “And so, folks stepped in and said that the federal government needed to take responsibility for major crimes,” said Klamath Tribes’ Chairman Clayton Dumont, providing a brief background of judicial power being stripped away from the Tribes. “Of course, then that would get farmed out to regular law enforcement, but not tribal law enforcement.”

He elaborated on the reasoning for strengthening and expanding the Tribes’ own judiciary in the present. With a public safety department now recognized by the State of Oregon and freshly sworn-in officers, the contours of this reality are beginning to take shape.

“I think we’ve always had a desire to put those institutions back in place that we lost,” said Dumont. “We had a tribal police force for a long time before Termination. We’ve had a fish and game officer – he was not armed. We’ve never had the capacity to enforce State law before, which these officers now will be able to do. The impetus for this has also been for families and kids specifically, trying to get our kids out of the system, wanting to have a court that was situated in the community and that understood how to help kids that are getting into trouble as opposed to going into the outside system, and end up going in wrong directions.”

Dumont also addressed the McGirt decision, a landmark Supreme Court case establishing tribes in Oklahoma have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed on their lands, whether by tribal members or non-tribal individuals. Although in one setback, stemming from a June 2022 Supreme Court ruling, the state of Oklahoma can seek to prosecute non-tribal citizens who are accused of committing crimes against tribal citizens on reservations.

“I have always thought it was absurd that tribal members from other tribes were subjected to tribal laws on the other side of the country,” Dumont said. “So, if I were in Oklahoma, and I was in their jurisdiction, and I violated a law, I would be subject to their judicial system, but a non-tribal from here wouldn’t.”

But Dumont does express optimism for the Klamath Tribes Judiciary in the long term.

“Right now, I’m happy that we’re going to have our own law enforcement people who will be able to enforce State law and tribal law. And the fact that our courts are taking care of our kids; that they’re able, for example, to collect child support, attach wages, that’s huge.”

$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.”