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COQUILLE — After more than 20 years, the Coquille Indian Tribe finally may be freed from unfairly cumbersome forest management rules.

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 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., Greg Walden (OR-02) and U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, 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.

“While there is still much work to be done to correct our nation’s injustices towards Native Americans, the passage of the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act is an encouraging move towards progress,” DeFazio said. “This legislation will finally grant the Coos, Cow Creek and Coquille Tribes the long-deserved opportunity to manage their own economic development and exercise their own authority over tribal lands.”

“The passage of this bill is an important step for these three tribes. The Cow Creek and Coos tribes see a restoration of lands and the Coquille will finally be able to manage their forest lands the same way as other tribes,” Walden said. “This bill ensures these tribes can sustainably manage these lands to benefit the environment and local economy, creating jobs in their communities. I am proud to have worked alongside my colleagues to pass this long-overdue bill out of Congress, and look forward to the President signing it into law.”

“While more can and must be done to rectify the injustices that tribes have long faced, passing this bill into law marks an important step forward in recognizing the sovereignty of western Oregon tribes,” Wyden said. “By returning land to both the Coos and Cow Creek tribes, and by putting the management of Coquille’s lands on equal footing with other tribal lands, this bill honors and respects each tribe’s right to be economically self-sufficient and provide jobs and resources for their communities.”

“With the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act, we will enable tribes to enhance their self-determination and ability to restore ancestral lands, while creating greater economic opportunity,” Merkley said. “It’s long-overdue, and I am thrilled this bill is heading to the President’s desk to be signed into law.”

The Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act passed the House of Representatives in July. The bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously in March.

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.

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. 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 has 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.”