In the Klamath region of northwestern California, Native Americans have an unbroken spiritual connection with the Siskiyou Mountains. These mountains, near the Lower Klamath River, are essential to the spiritual traditions of the Karuk, Tolowa, and Yurok tribes. In particular, these places are important in their ceremonies to renew the world.
Before venturing to these places of spiritual power, the Indian "doctor" (spiritual practitioner) must go through at least ten days of rigorous preparation including fasting, celibacy, and dancing in a sweathouse. The person then journeys to the high country without talking or making eye contact with anyone. At spiritual sites in the mountains, he or she continues fasting, praying, and dancing for several more days. When and if the person is finally given a gift of spiritual power, he or she descends from the mountains to initiate the world renewal ceremonies. The entire community participates in the ensuing series of dances. The medicine (spiritual power) generated by these dances is believed to increase the spiritual and physical well-being of the society and the environment.
When President Teddy Roosevelt designated the Klamath and Trinity Forest Reserves in 1905, the spiritual sites in the high country were included. This did little or nothing to hinder Native American spiritual uses of the area. In 1947, most of the high Siskiyous were transferred to Six Rivers National Forest. Roads were eventually built into neighboring areas, but the high country remained relatively undeveloped into the 1950's. Eventually recreational use of the area increased and botanists noticed the exceptional biodiversity of the area.
In the late 1940s, planners decided a road was needed to connect Gasquet Ranger District on the Smith River with Orleans Ranger District on the Klamath River. Portions of this road were built over the years but the unstable geology of the area caused problems. The original route of the Gasquet-Orleans Road (the GO road) near Bluff Creek was abandoned due to landslides. Road planners selected a new route across the high Siskiyou ridges. By the 1960s, there was growing interest in protecting the Siskiyous Mountains as wilderness.
In 1967, during Congressional hearings on creation of Redwood National Park, the Chief of the Forest Service proposed accelerated completion of the GO road and heavy logging in the Siskiyous. Apparently, an informal agreement was reached to build the GO road to help offset the economic impact of the new national park. This was presumably an attempt to placate the bitter opposition to the park especially the timber industry.
After the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, the Forest Service was required to document environmental impacts of proposed projects including the GO road. Up to that time, the Forest Service could limit dissent and opposition by withholding information. Now the disadvantages of the GO road were in the public record, thereby giving more clout to critics of the proposed road. Meanwhile construction of the road was encroaching on the high country from both the north and the south. By 1972, the road was complete except for 13 miles through the Indian holy lands.
Due to the private and sensitive nature of their spiritual practices, the local Native Americans were at first reluctant to testify. However, beginning in 1973, Native American spiritual leaders testified against the road. The Forest Service attempted to meet Native American concerns by redesigning the road. Although traditional Native Americans firmly opposed the road, other Indians supported the project.
Although the Forest Service had promised to keep the Indians and environmentalists updated about the project, they failed to do so. In October of 1974, they quietly contracted for construction of another segment of the GO road. When road construction activities were discovered by hikers, the credibility of the Forest Service was devastated (Dale 1992). Construction was halted pending administrative appeals.
By this time, the pivotal issue was the effect of the road on “cultural resources”, especially effects on religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Forest Service ignored opposition to the road by a noted anthropologist and expert on Yurok religion. They preferred the pro-development arguments of their own Regional Archaeologist although he was unfamiliar with northwest Indian culture (Dale 1992). Other arguments against the project concerned geologic hazards, effects on stream habitat and anadromous fisheries, and failure to consider wilderness values comprehensively.
The Forest Service fulfilled the immediate legal requirements and road building resumed. Construction of the last six miles of the road seemed inevitable especially because the area was already traversed by a low grade dirt road. Although the final decision on completion of the GO road decision was postponed pending the project EIS, Forest Service plans called for harvesting 929 million board feet of timber from the adjacent Blue Creek watershed. Apart from the GO road, the management plan for Blue Creek was, in itself, a major threat to spiritual and environmental qualities of the Siskiyous.
The Draft Environmental Statement for the final section of the road, released in 1977, served only to inflame the opposition. Opponents were also disappointed that the Forest Service Roadless Area Review and Evaluation of 1979 did not favor protection for the Siskiyous. The State of California opposed the GO road and successfully sued to delay development of the Siskiyous and forty-six other de facto wilderness areas. In preparation for the final EIS, the Forest Service contracted for a definitive anthropological study of impacts on Indian spiritual practices.
In response to the rising tide of criticism, the Forest Service modified their proposals. Proposed timber harvests in Blue Creek were reduced by 21%. The project now included one half mile special management areas around eleven sacred sites. Moreover, the recognition was dawning that, in the words of a Forest Service archaeologist, "the Indians view the high country as a sacred whole.... It is not just a series of isolated rocks where men and women go to pray. It is an extremely sacred and powerful region..." Nonetheless, plans continued moving toward manifestation.
The definitive anthropological study contracted for by the Forest Service was completed in April 1979, and strongly opposed the GO road. The conclusion was now unavoidable: completion of the GO road would adversely effect Indian sacred areas. Because these areas qualified as "historic places", the Forest Service had to consider comments from the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. In 1981, this council recommended against completion of the GO road, and the chairman described the situation as "a case study of inept agency planning" (Dale 1992).
The final EIS, initially expected in January 1979, was ultimately released in March 1982. The decision was for completion of the GO road. There was no mention of the Advisory Council conclusions, although there were assurances that the Advisory Council would be consulted before further road building.
An administrative appeal of this decision was rejected. In January 1983, the Forest Service awarded a contract for constructing the final section of the GO road. Environmentalists, Native Americans, and the State of California filed a lawsuit alleging violations of religious freedom and failure to meet requirements of NEPA and the 1964 Wilderness Act. The case was heard in District Court in San Francisco in March 1983. On May 24th, Judge Stanley Weigel ruled in favor of Indian rights under the First Amendment and permanently barred the Forest Service from logging or road building in the Indian high country. He also halted logging in the adjacent Blue Creek roadless area until environmental evaluation requirements could be met. This decision was, of course, appealed.
Meanwhile, the California Wilderness Act of 1984 was passed by Congress. Areas protected by this bill included 153,000 acres in the Siskiyous. However, the newly designated Siskiyou wilderness was bisected by corridor 1,200 feet wide to allow possible completion of the GO road.
Judge Weigel's decision was upheld on two separate occasions in the Court of Appeals. The Forest Service appealed the case to the Supreme Court and the high court agreed to review the Appeals Court decision. In November of 1987, the court heard the arguments. In April, 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that the Forest Service could build the GO road. This was a significant setback to Native American religious rights throughout the United States.
The GO road was finally stopped through legislation concerning the Smith River watershed on the north side. In response to proposals for a Smith River National Park, Congressman Doug Bosco proposed a compromise bill to create a Smith River National Recreation Area. By this time, the GO road was no longer economically attractive for the Forest Service. Most of the timber was either protected by wilderness designation or available by other roads. Realizing that Forest Service opposition had dissipated, Bosco included a provision in the Smith River NRA legislation to add the GO road corridor to the Siskiyou Wilderness. The proposed road through the sacred lands was dead.
The victory was bittersweet for Native Americans. They hoped that a victory in the GO road controversy would increase protection of sacred lands nationwide. In particular, they intended to use this opportunity to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Ultimately the defeat of the GO road was achieved on the basis of environmental values, rather than religious freedom. In the process, the Supreme Court ruled against Native American religious rights, thereby decreasing protection of Native American religions and sacred lands.
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Dale, Robert Y. 1992. The Gasquet to Orleans road: a case study in Forest Service decision-making. M.S. Thesis. Arcata, California: Humboldt State University.
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Frome, Michael. 1984. The Forest Service. Second edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
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USDA Forest Service -- http://www.fs.fed.us