WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that proponents say will expand land rights for three southern Oregon Native American tribes.
It now heads to the Senate for further consideration.
The Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act (H.R. 1306) provides land in trust to the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.
Currently, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe Indians and the Confederated tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians do not hold any land in trust.
The increase in tribal lands will spur job development and economic growth for both tribes, according to Congressman Peter DeFazio, who introduced the bipartisan piece of legislation.
“For years, these tribes have been unable to govern themselves as the sovereign nations that they are,” he said in a statement. “This should have been corrected decades ago — the fact that they haven’t yet been are an embarrassing leftover from a shameful era of United States history.”
DeFazio said the bill’s passage was a move toward progress.
“I urge my colleagues in the Senate to pass this legislation quickly,” he added.
Coquille Indian Tribal Chairwoman Brenda Meade said the bill would promote Native American forestry practices and boost local job growth.
“We are happy to have Congress recognize the disparity that burdened our tribe for so long,” she said.
Tribal Communications Officer Clark Walworth said that while the bill wouldn’t grant any land to the Coquilles, it would free the tribe to manage land they already own and allow them to meet their self-set “triple goals:” job creation, environmental protection and cultural restoration.
Congress restored 5,400 acres of forest to the tribe in 1996 but it tied the land’s management to the standards governing nearby federal lands.
According to Walworth, the Coquilles are the only U.S. tribe working under “this unique legal burden,” which he said limits the Coquilles’ ability to manage their lands efficiently and effectively.
Once freed from cumbersome federal regulations, Meade said, the Coquilles could use a science-based, adaptive forest model that creates more wood-products jobs for the community.
This is not the first bill attempting to “decouple” the Coquille Forest from federal rules, according to Walworth.
However, none have made it past the Senate.
“We do hope this is our year,” Meade said.