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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Tribal Section 319 Projects: California

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Restoring Watersheds by Decommissioning Forest Roads:
Karuk Tribe and Forest Service Form Successful Partnership

For years the tribal lands of the Karuk Tribe of California, located in Northern California near the Oregon state line, have been honeycombed with roads for mining (gold, gravel, and quartz) and timber harvesting. Today, however, the watersheds are in imminent danger of environmental crisis because of sedimentation resulting from those past activities, threatening the habitat of coho and chinook salmon and steelhead trout. A 72 percent decline in timber harvesting between 1989 and 1997 has also devastated the region's economy. Many tribal members who once worked for logging or mining operations are now unemployed.

Today, 95 percent of tribal ancestral lands are located in the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forests. In 1994 a government-to-government protocol agreement emerged from this overlap to help protect and restore the region. The Steinacher Road, once serving as the region's main corridor, was soon identified as the largest contributor of sediment to Steinacher and Wooley Creeks, which eventually lead to the Lower Salmon River. It is estimated that since the road's construction in 1971, more than 10,600 cubic yards of sediment has entered stream channels from cutbanks and the road surface; annual delivery is more than three times background levels.

Securing funding

In 1998 the Karuk Tribe entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Klamath National Forest calling for the sharing of resources, funding, and staff to help with decommissioning Steinacher Road. The Karuk Tribe secured 319 funding to help provide "storm-proofing" and prescription planning until significant restoration funds could be secured for the remainder of the decommissioning. Over the next 2 years, the Karuk Tribe and the Northern California Indian Development Council secured more than $1 million of funding from seven different funding sources to help with the project. In January 2000 an MOU was signed between the Karuk Tribe and the Six Rivers National Forest to continue completion of the Steinacher Road project as funding becomes available. Organizers of the project estimate that it will cost $1.9 million and take one project team 3 years to complete.

Building tribal capability

With assistance from the Northern California Indian Development Council, the Karuk Tribe initiated a Comprehensive Watershed Restoration Training and Implementation Program for tribal members and staff. The goal is to prepare the members of a Tribal Restoration Division for careers as watershed restoration specialists while supplying an on-the-job apprenticeship completing critical restoration work on projects available throughout the tribe's ancestral territory.

Since the Tribal Restoration Division was established, at least 16 tribe members have undergone training in heavy equipment application, prescription planning and surveying, and supervision of project sites. The new watershed restoration specialists have also removed about 94,800 cubic yards of sediment to stable locations and reestablished the natural drainage for five major streams that cross the abandoned Steinacher Road.

Improved water quality and fisheries are seen as a significant component of rebuilding the economy of the region. Watershed restoration represents an opportunity for long-term, stable employment based on non-resource-extraction ecosystem management and a stable, fully functioning ecosystem. Building the tribe's capability to play an appropriate role in ecosystem management is the only means by which ecosystem restoration, cultural survival, and community prosperity will be achieved.

Looking ahead

Over the long term, more than 2,000 miles of road throughout the Karuk's ancestral territory will need decommissioning or significant upgrading and remediation of mining impacts. These projects will take 12 project teams 25 to 30 years to complete. At a minimum, continuing this program requires $3 million per year above the current forest watershed budget for planning, inspection, administration, and logistical support. If funding can be secured, the partnership created between the Karuk Tribe and the Forest Service will continue to serve as a model for a systematic approach to long-term salmon recovery efforts on the Klamath River.

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