A Portrait from the Klamath Basin: Don Gentry, Vice Chairman of The Klamath Tribes

Posted by Renee Magyar on January 7, 2013

Klamath Basin residents are beginning to see evidence that collaboration can help bring a divided community back together.

Photo courtesy of The Klamath Tribes

Don Gentry has lived in the Upper Klamath Basin all his life. He is the Vice Chairman of The Klamath Tribes and this region is his tribes' ancestral home. Growing up hunting and fishing with his father, Don learned the cultural traditions of his heritage, including a love of nature and respect for the land.

Fishing has been a mainstay of The Klamath Tribes since time immemorial, yet for the past 100 years they have not been able to harvest salmon from their tribal land. Salmon passage to the Upper Basin has been blocked since 1918 by dams built along the Klamath River.

The Klamath Basin has attracted people for millennia for its biodiversity and ecological abundance. Family farming and ranching has since become rooted here, and along with these industries has come increased irrigation. This increased water usage compounded by more frequent drought has lead to conflict over how the water should be allocated. 

In 2001 water was shut off to irrigators, and farmers suffered great loss of crops. The following year water was diverted to farms and there was a resulting die off of tens of thousands of salmon - a devastation to the tribes and ultimately also to commercial fisheries in subsequent years. These rotating crises have left behind a community largely divided by fear and anger.

We met Don 11 years ago when we helped fund and facilitate a ranch restoration project that became the catalyst for a strong and historic partnership between area ranchers, tribespeople, farmers, fishermen and state and federal agencies.

The events of 2001 and 2002 were hard for Don. On one hand he saw positive steps toward protecting his tribes' traditions and their fish, but also was hurt by seeing the loss to farming families. With this empathy and an understanding of the inextricable link between Basin residents, he and the other supporters of restoration continue to work together toward a shared goal of peace on the river, open salmon runs and restored habitat, and shared water supplies.

This past fall a quiet but significant event took place. The Klamath Tribes were invited to the fish hatchery at the foot of the Iron Gate Dam, the lowest dam on the Klamath River just south of the Oregon-California border, to take home fresh salmon - something they have not had in over a century, since the time the dams blocked salmon runs to the Upper Basin. They went to perform a ceremony of thanks for a bounty of salmon that year, and to all of the people who made this historic event possible. Were it not for the trust that has been built through collaboration over the past decade, the tribe never would have felt welcome traveling to this part of the river.

"It's a small step in the right direction and demonstrates the benefits of collaboration. Hopefully it's a sign of good things to come for all of us who are dependent on Klamath Basin resources," says Don.

Many diverse groups live along the Klamath River and depend on the health of the river to sustain their ways of life, from farmers, tribes, and ranchers in the upper basin to salmon fishers at the mouth.

For over 11 years Sustainable Northwest has been working closely with these diverse groups to chart a course toward a more harmonious future and craft an agreement that will restore the health of the river and the surrounding watershed for the benefit of all residents. This work led to a monumental event in 2010 - the signing of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Basin Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. These historic agreements, and the solutions they outline, hold the promise of shared water supplies, open salmon runs, and restored habitat.

We believe that solutions to the challenges facing the Klamath Basin community can be found without sacrificing the good of the land for the good of the people or the good of the people for the good of the land. 

We still have much work to do to pass the federal legislation needed to implement these agreements. Through community education, congressional outreach, catalytic restoration projects, and telling the story of the Klamath Basin, we continue to work alongside Basin residents, like Don Gentry, to bring the promise of these agreements to fruition.