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Original Issue


The beautiful course of the Klamath River in northern California has grown ugly in recent years. It is a setting for war—at times a shooting war—between sports fishermen and Indian gill-netters, with the salmon caught in the middle

Although it's only 200 miles long, the Klamath River of northern California has many faces. Great green combers roll in from the Pacific past the sandbar at its mouth where Yurok Indians jig for eels and sea lions frolic as they wait for a run of salmon. A short distance upstream, fishing resorts and camps flank the straight edge of Highway 101 where logging trucks loaded with the trunks of giant redwoods roar past day and night. This is the town of Klamath (pop. 635), a community predicated on Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

Above Klamath, the river loops between high bluffs thick with young redwoods and madrones. Vast gravel bars gleam in the green water and herring gulls scream over the shallows. Then the river narrows gradually, its pace quickening.

Beyond road's end, the river grows wilder, the rapids rougher, the banks only infrequently showing signs of human presence: a sprawling ranch at Apah; a vast and ugly clear-cut, courtesy of the Simpson Timber Company, near Blue Creek; a modernistic house of weathered wood and glass, balanced precariously on a rock where Surpur Creek enters from the west. At the Indian town of Johnson's, eight or nine junked cars rusting on the bluff announce the presence of 200 human beings. Still, the overall impression is one of deep natural beauty: a strong, raucous, clear-running river and big white boulders, some of them topped with equally white driftwood.

But there is another face to the Klamath River, one that has grown uglier each year since 1975. It's a face of war, the Great Klamath-Trinity River Salmon War, the Trinity being the Klamath's principal tributary. Real bullets whiz back and forth across the Klamath at times, Indian firing at white man; Indian at Indian; cop at violator. Last summer a white canoeist was shot in the back far upriver. Like many modern wars, this one has no out-and-out bad guys, unless it be "government," that catchall bad guy of our times. On one side are arrayed sportsmen, resort owners, local law-enforcement officers and the majority of the 3,800-member Yurok tribe that occupies the lower 50 miles of the Klamath-Trinity system. On the other side are 18 to 20 commercial gill-netters, themselves mostly Yuroks, and their backer, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Caught in the middle, to a greater or lesser extent, are 1,400 Hoopa Indians who occupy a 12-mile-square reservation just upriver of the Yuroks; the 500 or so Karok Indians upstream from them; the Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus; various California state officials; and—most poignantly—the salmon and steelhead of the river.

The issues involved in the conflict are so deep-rooted and complex as to require a latter-day Solomon to resolve them, yet if resolution isn't achieved by the time this summer's Chinook run starts later this month, most experts—Indian and non-Indian alike—agree that the Klamath may be finished as a natural salmon fishery. The reason: since 1975, in an exercise of "traditional Indian fishing rights," a small group of Indians (and some non-Indians) has been gillnetting the river so heavily that the salmon of the Klamath-Trinity drainage may have reached the point of no return. The netters aren't fishing just for "subsistence," an ill-defined term that would seem to mean home consumption, but for money. They have been selling their catches for prices up to $6 a pound—in defiance of a 1933 California state law that forbids commercial salmon fishing in any of the state's once salmon-thick rivers, and with the overt approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"This is a river that has been devastated," said U.S. Representative Robert L. Leggett during congressional hearings on the matter last fall. "We have virtually lost the salmon in the Sacramento River, and we have lost them in lots of rivers in California. We are in danger of losing them in this river." Leggett, who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife, was addressing himself to Forrest Gerard, Assistant Secretary of the Interior in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "If there are violations that have occurred out there, those violations ought to be reasonably pursued. There has been the law of the jungle on this river for much too long. It has been utter chaos."

Though the origin of this chaos dates back at least to 1891, when some five northern California Indian tribes were given the Hoopa Reservation on the Klamath, the immediate furor began taking shape in 1969. In that year a downriver Indian named Raymond Mattz was arrested by the California Fish and Game Department agents for gillnetting salmon on the Klamath. In 1972 Mattz took the case—Arnett vs. Five Gill Nets et al.—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and although the Court said nothing about Indians fishing in violation of state law, it did rule that the lower Klamath—the 50 miles below the so-called Hoopa Square—was to be considered part of the reservation. In 1975 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the state had no power to interfere with Indian fishing rights on the reservation unless such regulation was needed to conserve the resource.

The famous (or infamous) Judge Boldt decision of 1972 in the state of Washington had clarified the rights of so-called "treaty" Indians living along the Columbia River drainage to fish for salmon without regulation. Early this May, U.S. District Court Judge Noel P. Fox of Grand Rapids ruled similarly in a case involving Chippewa Indian gill-netters, upholding the rights granted by treaties signed in 1836 and 1855. "The mere passage of time," he wrote, "cannot erode the rights guaranteed by solemn treaties. The Indians have a right to fish today wherever fish are to be found.... It is an Indian treaty case."

But the Hoopa Reservation wasn't set up by treaty. It was established by executive order with no mention of fishing rights. Nonetheless, Mattz and the other commercial fishermen on the Klamath argue that—until recently—no one, the BIA included, had interfered with their gillnetting. During the summer run of 1975, Mattz and a few dozen of his fellow Indians began fishing commercially in a big and blatant way. The BIA did nothing to stop them. The rationale offered was based on debatable anthropological evidence that some Yuroks in pre-white days had occasionally traded salmon for deerskins and artifacts.

The bureau's laissez-faire policy frightened and outraged sports fishermen and the resort owners who had been earning more than $1 million a year from the sport fishery. Under the leadership of Ed Henke, a former San Francisco 49er, the sportsmen banded together in a group called the Klamath/Trinity River Coalition, Inc. "I've been fishing that river for 30 years," says Henke, "and I knew right away that most of the Indians were against commercial fishing. The Yuroks, and the other Indians upstream, know damn well that the resource is fragile, that you don't hit it hard year after year with heavy monofilament gill nets in every eddy and expect to have anything left. The Chinook has a three-to five-year life cycle. When it returns to spawn, it dies, as do all the Pacific salmon. If there isn't enough 'escapement' from the nets, that whole year's return can be wiped out. We've had unconscionably heavy gillnetting now for three years. Figure it out."

If it were simply a matter of the Indian majority recognizing a threat to its major resource, one would think the Indians would stop the 18 or 20 "outlaw" gill-netters. There is, however, another legal fly in the proverbial ointment: the Jessie Short case. In the early 1950s the BIA decided that the midriver Hoopa Square was one reservation and that the "Yurok Extension"—the 50 miles of river below the square with a mile of mountainous country on each side—was another, separate reservation. That arbitrary, bureaucratic fiat deprived the 3,800 Yuroks of the wealth of the Hoopa plateau, mainly timber valued at $200 million. Allan Morris, a white man and former Eureka, Calif. police detective married to a Yurok woman named Fawn Williams, took on the role of adviser to the Yuroks and sued the BIA. In 1973 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Morris' advisee, a woman named Jessie Short, and 3,300 other claimants, who aren't necessarily full-blooded Yuroks but are residents of the extension. The court said that the two reservations were one and that the Yuroks had at least $16 million coming to them.

"We still haven't seen the money," says Morris, a burly, intense man who lives in a modest home in Mountain View, near San Francisco. "Look at all these papers"—he gestures to room after room full of legal documents, press releases, newspaper clippings. "Pretty soon Fawn and I will be living in the yard with a house full of documents."

The distribution of Yurok monies has been held up because the Court of Appeals can't decide which of the 3,300 litigants is a true Yurok. Until this question of Yurokness is sorted out, the BIA is holding the money in trust. Morris and his wife, and many other Yuroks as well, refuse to set up any sort of tribal organization until they can do so in tandem with the Hoopa council. At that time, they argue, they will decide what to do or not to do about commercial fishing on the river. Morris particularly fears that the BIA is trying to force the Yuroks into a premature tribal organization so that the agency can then say, "Aha! They always have been a separate tribe, just as we said in 1953, so give us back our $16 million."

To be sure, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has a bad track record, dating to the early Agency days when corruption flourished around the twin allures of booze (for Indians) and furs (for whites)—but in this day and age? "They're two-faced liars!" rages Morris. "They're out to get our money and kill the salmon in the Klamath."

But why?

"In 1980," Morris says, "California loses its lease to water from the Colorado River. Where is the state going to get water for Southern California? If the salmon in the Klamath-Trinity system are wiped out, the non-Indian sportsmen and environmentalists will lose interest. And if the fish are wiped out by Indians, even more so. Then the government can build high dams wherever they want, with only a few Indians—who are all already branded as 'villains' because of the salmon kill—arguing against it. So Southern Californians will still be able to wash their cars, but all of the Indians of the river will find themselves depatriated. They'll have to leave the river. It will have become a chain of sterile lakes."

To be sure, paranoia and sunshine abound in equal measure in California, yet a number of reasonable men agree with Morris' theory. One of them is Bob Bostwick, 42, a lean, bemused steelhead enthusiast who with his wife, Jenny, runs Kamp Klamath, an RV park on the lower river catering to the fishing trade. Bob and Jenny moved up to the Klamath from the freeway freneticism of Southern California six years ago, looking for a life of self-sufficiency and lots of fishing.

"At first glance it would seem pretty unlikely," Bostwick says of Morris' theory. "But the more you think of it, the more sense it makes. The BIA is in business as 'trustee' of the various Indian tribes on reservations. It's up to the agency to keep the reservations economically healthy. Yet it was the BIA that condoned the commercial gill-netting in the first place, and it's the BIA that's been promulgating regulations for commercial fishing the past couple of years. In effect, they've legalized the destruction of this river as a fishing resource—not just for the Indians, but for all of us, Indians, sportsmen and lodge owners alike. There are 19 lodge owners here in Klamath. Two of them have already gone under, and more are likely to fail this summer. Why would any federal agency permit this sort of destruction—of the Indians' livelihood as well as our own—if there weren't something bigger behind it?" And that something, the Bostwicks agree, is the water-hungry burgeoning population and rich agricultural lands of Sacramento and the Sacramento delta 300 miles to the south of the Klamath.

The Bostwicks, other resort owners, sportsmen and some residents have banded together to form yet another organization, the Klamath River Basin Task Force, which is suing Cecil Andrus, the Department of the Interior and the BIA for failing to prepare a proper environmental impact statement before the BIA's authorization of commercial netting in August 1977. In addition, the task force has filed a claim asking $1.25 million in damages.

What hurt the resort owners most was a lukewarm compromise between the BIA and the state of California last summer. In August, with the concurrence of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency imposed a moratorium on all fishing—commercial and sports—with the exception of "traditional" Indian subsistence netting. "As if 'subsistence' fishing weren't the same damn thing as commercial!" says Bostwick. "Who's to say if they take those fish home or sell 'em?"

Last Sept. 5, while working on a drug case, Del Norte County Sheriff Tom Hopper and his men stopped a truck on Highway 101 carrying 650 salmon and one steelhead worth some $60,000 to $70,000.

Hopper is a short, dapper, wry-spoken man of 41 who has lived in the Klamath-Crescent City area for about 20 years. "We thought we had a narcotics bust going," he said not long ago in his Crescent City office. "This area has some of the richest marijuana-growing country anywhere. But when we pulled that truck over, I saw it: water running from the back of the truck. Melting ice. We'd caught a load of fish. It was a Hertz Rent A Truck, and the salmon were all belly-packed in ice, a real professional job."

Hopper, who takes enforcement of the salmon situation seriously, says that Klamath River fish are being sold to points as distant as Reno, San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver and "maybe even as far as New York, from what we've heard.

"Black-market prices are so high," he says ruefully, "that they can operate with impunity anywhere they want. It's the same situation as it was in 1933, when the state banned commercial salmon fishing—a small number of greedy individuals wiping out the resource for short-term gain.

"What I'm afraid of is the violence that could well erupt on the river this summer. We came damn close to death last summer, during the moratorium. Last December I learned that there were 60 gill nets in the river on one given day. I called the Fish and Wildlife guys in Sacramento, and I even called Washington. I screamed bloody murder. The operator or secretary who answered in F&W in our nation's capital said that the responsible people in this matter were on vacation. I guess that's when I said maybe when they come out here, this summer we'll be on vacation."

Across the street from Sheriff Hopper's headquarters is the office of Del Norte County District Attorney Bob Weir, a trim, wiry and eagle-eyed young lawyer who likes to exercise his hands with wire-sprung compressors while he talks. "The first priority in this whole sorry business," he said, "is to settle the Jessie Short case as soon as possible. Why it's taken 20 years for that case to go through, only God and the federal courts know. If they could only have invested that money—some $16 to $20 million—into the river economy, buying resorts or something to help the local economy, Indian and white, then it might have been worth it. If the BIA would but do it.... But they won't. Their prime interest, to my mind, is to keep from getting sued, to keep their tails out of a legal bind.

"The decline in the fishery, in my opinion, is only partly the fault of the Indians who are going at it commercially. It's minor. The biggest cause is bad logging practices, which have made many spawning streams impassable to salmon and have helped to silt up the river. Another factor, certainly, is the removal of water from the upper drainage of the Trinity to the south. But I don't think there's an overall, calculated plan—a conspiracy—to destroy the river in order to divert its water down south."

Weir flexes his wrists and compresses the wooden handles. "To allow commercial fishing, as the BIA and the Interior Department have done, and then to stop it in midseason as they did last summer, is a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle and then trying to stuff him back in."

One of the saving graces of any salmon fishery, of course, is the fact that all salmonids can be readily raised in hatcheries, then restocked in waters where the native population has failed. But Weir, who has done his homework thoroughly, feels otherwise in the Klamath's case. "Hatchery input is bad for the river," he says. "Hatchery fish return only to limited spawning spots—the places they were planted—while wild fish cover the whole spectrum of the river. What's more, hatchery fish are fed on chopped liver and other goodies while they're growing, thus they're bigger and stronger than the natives—they compete in the river for food against the natives, and they win."

Weir sees a historical link with the problems of old English salmon rivers. "In medieval times," he says, "it was a crime punishable by death for a commoner to take the king's salmon. Yet men risked it, and do to this day, though the penalty is less severe. Poaching these fish is so profitable, here as it was there, that men are willing to risk even death for the payoff. You can suppress illegal fishing, but you can't stop it."

Bill Van Pelt, 60, is a short, husky, soft-spoken Yurok with a thick white crew cut and the classic cheekbones and strong chin one sees in photographs of 19th-century war chiefs of the Great Plains.

"I speak for the salmon who have no voice," he likes to say, and he speaks very articulately. "A lot of people these days are saying that the Indian is a 'natural conservationist.' That's a lot of bunk. I'm fed up with a lot of this stuff they teach in the Native American Studies programs that make the Indian out to be some sort of ecological and ethnic saint. Our ancestors were killers, both of men and of other animals, salmon included. When I was a boy growing up on the river, the old people used to talk of how the first Yuroks who came into the Klamath country rubbed out a Stone Age people who were here ahead of us.

"The only reason they didn't kill all the salmon before you white men got here was because they had a crude, weak technology. They had heavy dugout canoes—I'm damned if I know how they cut down the trees to make them, maybe with fire—and they used nets woven from iris grass or else wicker fish traps made of roots and branches. They fished for a week or two as the salmon run passed the family fishing hole, caught maybe eight or 10 salmon a night. Salmon wasn't the only or even the major source of protein. There were shellfish, eels, deer when they could hit them with their weak bows and arrows, elk very rarely. The Indians who are now gillnetting the salmon to death are fishing drift nets in the mouth of the Klamath. They say they're fishing 'traditionally.' That's bunk, too. Nobody ever fished the mouth in the old days. It was too far away, and who could paddle those big, cumbersome canoes back upstream? These gill-netters say that the old Yuroks traded salmon with other tribes, and thus they justify commercial fishing. That's a lie. The old Indians believed it to be a sin to sell or barter fish.

"There used to be a fall run of big salmon in the Klamath—we called them 'kings.' They were big fish, 60 pounds or more. We wiped that run out about 1945. Now it looks like we're going to wipe out the summer and the spring runs as well. Then we can all move away and lament the good old days." He smiles sadly, shakes his head and sips from his coffee cup. "I guess I don't have to tell you. The other Indians say I'm a white man with a brown skin. I don't care what they say. I speak for the salmon who cannot speak for themselves. This river needs a long rest—a total moratorium on subsistence as well as commercial and sport fishing, while a decent, solid study is done so we know what we have left."

During this spring's run—a small one at best—the only enforcement of BIA regulations on the river was being handled by three Yurok officers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including Dale Miller, 32, a supervisor and wildlife inspector, who was in charge. I rode up the river on patrol with Miller and his two assistants, Ron Holzhauser and Blake Proctor, in their 55-mph aluminum-hulled jet boat. It was a bright, cool day after a week of rain and the river was riding high. "Our job is to check the name and registration number on every gill net in the river," said Miller, a portly man with a cop's hard eyes. "We check to see if there are fish in the nets—so far this run hasn't been very productive—and that the nets aren't more than 100 feet in length overall. Each family can fish two nets of 50 feet each. The moratorium of last fall was lifted for this spring run, but even if it hadn't been, I don't know what I'd do if I caught a violator. Give him a warning, I guess. I'm under orders from the BIA not to make any unnecessary arrests. We're trying to keep a low profile so as to avoid the SWAT team approach we used last summer."

The run up the river was uneventful. We found 33 nets, all of them properly marked and registered. Only one contained a fish—a 40-pound sturgeon, an incidental but valuable victim in the salmon game. A scattering of salmon was taken, but it was by all accounts a mediocre run at best. Halfway up to Coon Creek Falls, Miller pulled the patrol boat over to a gravel bar where a johnboat with an outboard was beached. In it, awakening from a peaceful siesta, was Jerry Patterson, 48, one of the leaders of the gill-netting, commercial-fishing contingent, which calls itself the Klamath River Wildlife Conservation Association. Patterson is blond, blue-eyed and one-eighth Hoopa on his mother's side.

"Look at all this country around here," he said, gesturing across the rolling river. "My great-grandmother had lots of land, but she gave it all away—lots of land over in Redwood Valley. She kept only this little bit of the river for her descendants to use and to live on, and now they want to take the commercial-fishing rights away from us." He cocked his camouflage hat back on his freckled forehead. "I used to be in the lumber business, but now all the good timber has been turned into houses. All that's left is leaners and widow-makers on the steep slopes. I'm not going back in the woods. I got out with my whole skin, and now I'm going to use the river the way my great-grandmother intended for me to use it. I don't know how anyone can seriously say that we're destroying the resource. Heck, there was a study that showed the trawlers on the deep water—Russians and Japanese as well as Americans—take 88% of the salmon that are headed for this river. The sports fishermen take another 8% and the Indians take only 4%. Whatever they decide, I'm going to keep right on fishing."

What Patterson failed to mention was that the study he referred to was done in 1967. There is no up-to-date study on the salmon's return to the river, and thus no means of determining how many fish—if any—can safely be taken before they spawn. As for Patterson's mention of his dear old great-grandmother, Dale Miller had to laugh. "If you'd called Jerry an Indian five years ago," he said, "he'd have punched you out. Some folks say he took $200,000 out of the river last year. He's driving a new truck and his house has been all fixed up. I don't know, you figure it out."

Perhaps the Solomonic decision that could save the salmon and steelhead of the Klamath is just as simple as old Bill Van Pelt's advice: stop all fishing on the river right now, use some of that Jessie Short money to pay the fishing families what they would have realized had they kept fishing and send in a team of well-funded, impartial marine biologists to assess the entire situation. Donations from concerned conservation groups might help keep resort owners like the Bostwicks afloat during the study period. Surely even the Jerry Pattersons and Raymond Mattzes couldn't object to that. After all, if it was their great-grandmothers' desire that the young have a renewable resource, they would only be acceding to the ancestral wish.



Near its mouth where the gill nets are set, the Klamath meanders placidly along vast gravel bars, but a few miles upstream it narrows, its pace quickening.



Van Pelt, a Yurok, speaks softly for salmon.



Patterson, a netter, says he wants to use the Klamath the way his great-grandmother intended him to.



Last year, during a ban on all but "subsistence" fishing, as many as 60 nets like this one were in use.