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Berries, skiers thrive together

Ski run maintenance protects huckleberries, say Meadows, tribes

December 21, 2005

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have combed the slopes of Mount Hood every August for thousands of years to pick plump and juicy huckleberries for nourishment and use in spiritual ceremonies.

Two years ago, tribal leaders added a new custom to that annual ritual — a chair lift ride above the craggy terrain and daylong celebration at Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort.

The two parties have formed a partnership to cultivate huckleberry fields on the mountain that are set aside for exclusive use by tribal members. One interest complements the other, said Dave Riley, general manager for Meadows.

He said areas groomed for the 80 ski runs operated by Meadows create the perfect habitat for sun loving huckleberry plants to thrive.

“The development of ski runs actually works a lot like the controlled burns that the tribe once used to create a large opening where sunlight could reach the forest floor,” said Riley.

He and tribal leaders are pleased to see the interest in preserving the ancient harvest grounds being picked up by U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., in their conceptual plan for uses in the Mount Hood National Forest.

This summer, Warm Springs officials treated the two federal legislators to a picnic lunch —including huckleberry cobbler — along the Timberline Trail.

They met with Blumenauer and Walden on the last leg of the 41-mile trek they had taken to view the landscape while discussing how to blend natural resource protection of the mountain with recreation, commercial and tribal interests.

During an afternoon visit, tribal representatives informed the elected officials that the density of the forest was slowly squeezing out places for huckleberry plants to take root. Plus, by the time the tribes had conducted their annual religious rites to bless the harvest, commercial pickers had already removed most of the fruit.

“The huckleberries on Mount Hood have always been a sacred food that has great significance to the tribes. But it has become increasingly harder for them to find the fruit that means so much to their way of life,” said Greg Leo, tribal spokesperson.

Meadows has attempted to overcome some of the tribal harvesting problems by posting 30 special signs along portions of the 3,554 acres it manages for the skiing operation under a permit with the U.S. Forest Service. Riley said the signs ask recreationists to grant the Warm Springs the sole right to gather berries in that location.

Riley said the voluntary program has proven to be largely successful and people have been very respectful of the treaty right established in 1855 when the Warm Springs signed over ownership of the mountain to the U.S. government. Under that treaty, the tribes agreed to move onto a reservation in Central Oregon but were forever allowed to hunt, fish and gather foods from Mount Hood, the Columbia River Gorge and other traditional places.

Walden and Blumenauer are drafting legislation to foster more opportunities for tribal huckleberry harvest. They want government leaders, tribal representatives, and other stakeholders to engage in “huckleberry diplomacy” and come up with a plan that better protects the treaty right.

“From the tribes’ point of view this is an absolutely fantastic idea,” said Leo. “It paves the way for better understanding between the tribes, Forest Service and ski areas.”

Riley also strongly supports the idea. He said the new partnership between Meadows and the Warm Springs emerged out of more than 10 years of discussions over varied uses of the ski permit area. He said every time Meadows has planned a new project, it has run the idea by the tribes for comment.

But deciding to bring tribal leaders via shuttle bus to Meadows every August has greatly increased communication.

For example, Riley has observed that more huckleberry fields need to be cultivated near roadways so they are easily accessible by elderly tribal members. He also believes that a return of the tribal controlled burns could open up new glades for berry plants.

“While Mount Hood is not reservation land, the Warm Springs have a right to use this property and their interests need to be considered,” said Riley. “This is something that I’ve really been pushing and it’s nice to see the Congressmen putting this language in the framework for legislation.”

Walden and Blumenauer are expected to introduce a draft plan for Mount Hood by late winter or early spring.

They want to have new regulations in place by 2006 and then put together working groups of government leaders and other stakeholders to hammer out details on the huckleberry field issue.

Separate task forces will be put together to also address transportation needs, watershed protection, recreational opportunities and forest health.

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