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Environment, Energy and Transportation
In this special series for Jefferson Public Radio, reporter Kate Kaye takes us to Oregon’s rocky shores - visiting with volunteers monitoring Black Oystercatchers, researchers surveying Gray Whales and kelp, a south coast ecotour guide, a north coast crabber and more - to illuminate the challenges affecting rocky intertidal habitats, how new policy proposals seek to address them, and what they could mean for Oregonians.

Saving Oregon's Rocky Coast: A Key Role For The Region's First People

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Kate Kaye / JPR News
Coquille and Coos tribal elder Tom Younker at Yoakam Point on Oregon’s south coast.

Natural resources in the Northwest are closely linked to tribal culture and identity. As Oregon’s ocean advisory council works with community groups to update policies for managing the rocky shores, sovereign tribal nations have special status and unique needs.

In his younger days, tribal elder Tom Younker would make his way through the forest brush here at Yoakam Point on Oregon’s south coast and look for a hidden spot.

"Out that way there’s a rope that goes down," he told me. "You can look down on the mussel bed, there’s a mussel bed out there."

Younker would use a rope to get down closer to where the waves crash up against the rock and he’d harvest mussels. Younker, who’s a Coquille and Coos Indian, says sometimes tribal members gather shells here, too.

"We use that for beads around the neck and that’s a great place to gather ‘em."

This is one of countless spots along Oregon’s coast with deep meaning for tribal members. During a July meeting of Oregon’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council - or OPAC - Margaret Corvi spoke on behalf of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.

"Our lifeways are tied to animals, landscape features, cultural sites, important animals such as seabirds, seals, whales, first foods such as fish, clams, crabs, seaweed and kelp, as well as things just like shells that we use in regalia," she said.

And when the state manages those natural resources, Corvi said…

"They also manage our identity and culture."

Right now, OPAC is overseeing a community-led process to update protections for Oregon’s rocky shores. Community groups have submitted proposals for designating coastal sites as education, research or conservation areas that will be available for public comment in March.

Margaret Treadwell is coordinator for the North Coast Rocky Habitat Coalition. She helped put together two site proposals that say the state should incorporate tribal practices into its management plans for the rocky shores.

"Indigenous peoples have that long-term traditional and ecological knowledge and actually can help shape sustainable policy that actually works through their cultural practices," she says.

"If approved, any rules associated with these proposals that might affect site access or harvesting won’t apply to Tribal Nations that have separate agreements with the state.

The thing is, tribes have different concerns from the average clammer. Their cultural practices are linked to particular species, and they don’t want to draw attention to them. That’s one of many reasons tribal members tell me they’re reluctant to broadcast their concerns in public forums.

It’s also important to remember that Tribal Nations are sovereign nations, not stakeholder groups like those representing conservation advocates, fishermen or the tourism industry.

So, outside the community-led process that OPAC has set up for groups like Treadwell’s, Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development tells JPR it has held a series of closed-door government-to-government work sessions with affected Tribal Nations.

The meetings are considered to be confidential by the tribes involved.

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Kate Kaye / JPR News
Siuslaw tribal member Doug Barrett, a.k.a. Running Bear, shows off his bear tattoo.

I met Doug Barrett, a member of the Siuslaw tribe, this summer on Oregon’s south coast in Coos Bay.

"I kinda consider my Indian name as Running Bear," he told me. "I actually got a running bear tattoo."

Tribal members like Barrett say interactions with Oregon state and local governments in policy matters over the years have been a mixed bag: sometimes they feel listened to and respected, other times not so much.

But Barrett hopes any plans for protecting areas along the rocky shore take a holistic, balanced approach. He’s from a canoe culture, so…

"We say in the canoe, the canoe’s got to be in balance," he says. "You’ve got to be able to feel the canoe, you’ve got to look at the water. You’ve got to see the water and understand what the water’s doing. And when we see the world out of balance right now, we want to heal it. We want to help fix it. How can we help fix it? Just ask us to help and we will."

Barrett and other tribal members say they’d like to see state land and water policies designed to achieve ecological balance for generations to come.