A group of people interested in turning Lava Beds National Monument into a national park enter Indian Well Cave April 11 as part of a tour at the monument. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

Beds of contention

TULELAKE — Not everybody thinks turning Lava Beds National Monument into a national park is a good idea.

Following a Lava Beds tour Wednesday, about 30 people attended a round-table discussion at Tulelake City Hall that was contentious at times.

Members of regional Indian tribes said they fear that increased visitation could damage cultural resources, while some Tulelake Basin residents believe a status change could further limit public access to the park.

A recurring theme was the fear that a Japanese-American group opposing fencing of the Tulelake Airport might try to incorporate expansion of the Tule Lake Unit of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument with legislation redesignating Lava Beds.

Among those at the daylong session was Erin Ryan, district representative for U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican whose far Northern California congressional district includes Siskiyou and Modoc counties and the Lava Beds. After the meeting, Ryan said LaMalfa is especially concerned the Tule Lake Committee, which hosts biannual pilgrimages to the World War II Tule Lake Segregation Center, might want to extend the current Tule Lake Unit boundaries and force the airport to relocate and/or close.

"We're listening to all the people," Ryan said, but she frequently questioned the value of changing Lava Beds from a national monument to a national park. The change would require an act of Congress and is unlikely without support from LaMalfa and California's two senators.

Along with others, Ryan expressed concern a designation change could lead to use limitations, saying, "That is a concern to our (LaMalfa's) office."

Among those attending the tour and discussion were representatives from the Klamath Tribes, Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma and Pit River Tribe, along with administrators and supervisors from Modoc and Siskiyou counties.

Elizabeth Norton, board president of the Volcanic Legacy Community Partnership, said efforts to promote the status change were generated after a series of 2016 meetings. An economic study prepared by Discover Klamath, Klamath County's tourism agency, says projected revenues could increase annually between $23 million and $32.6 million in direct spending to surrounding communities from increased visitation.

Norton and Laura Allen, representing the Butte Valley Chamber of Commerce and Volcanic Legacy group, said the change would benefit economically staggering communities, including Tulelake and Dorris.

"Communities are suffering, and this would be a shot in the arm," Norton said.

Norton said she believes Lava Beds qualifies for national park status because of its diverse cultural, historical and geologic features. Lava Beds has more than 800 lava tube caves, was the homeland for prehistoric Native Americans, as evidenced by areas with high volumes of petroglyphs, and was the location of the most significant events of the Modoc War of 1872-73 (date corrected from previous version).

During a bus tour that preceded the discussion, Blake Follis, the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma's attorney, voiced concerns about previous vandalism at Petroglyph Point. He worried that increased visitation at Petroglyph Point, which he termed the tribe's "point of genesis," might also increase vandalism.

Perry Chooktoot, the Klamath Tribes cultural and heritage director, was sharply critical of the lack of protection, rhetorically asking, "So we're going to out more people in this vicinity? We've got blood of our people out here." He did note, however, "If you're going to show me an increase in protection, I can go for that."

During the discussion, Chooktoot criticized the status change as being only for financial reasons.

"It's gotta be for a dollar bill," he said, adding the region's sagging economy is the result of increased marijuana growing and use and other long-standing factors, problems he believes won't be solved by a change in park status.

In response, Tulelake Mayor Hank Ebinger said he believes national park status would give Lava Beds and its Native American history a higher profile and "could be an opportunity for that story to be told. ... It's not just an opportunity to make a buck."

Mark Clark, an Oregon Tech history professor, echoed Ebinger, noting a status change could raise awareness of the Native history and the "sadly neglected" Modoc War.

Mickey Gimmel, Pit River Tribe chairman, mostly focused his sometimes angry comments on concerns about the Medicine Lake Highlands, which border the park and have been considered for geothermal development.

"You better take us seriously and talk to us," he said. "We can be in opposition or we could be with you."

Chester Robertson, Modoc County's CEO, and Supervisor Geri Byrnes, whose area includes the Tulelake Basin, expressed concerns the Tule Lake Committee might seek amendments to legislation authorizing a Lava Beds status change. The committee recently refiled a lawsuit against Modoc County for plans to develop a fence around the Tule Lake Airport, which was part of the Tule Lake Segregation Center and is managed by Modoc County. They and others said they want assurances of the wording of any proposed legislation — bills for the status change would have to be filed in the House and Senate — and any possible attachments.

Ryan Bartholomew, who helped oversee the discussion, said there is a need for more tribal involvement in upcoming talks and noted a similar need for participation by Tulelake Basin residents. He also believes strategies should be developed to better preserve historic artifacts. A better understanding of the legislative process was also deemed necessary.

Despite an often negative tone, Norton urged people to discuss changing Lava Beds' status with their groups and to "seek common ground and remain positive."

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at or 541-880-4139.

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