Although it's only 200 miles long, the Klamath River of northern California has many faces. Great green combers roll in from the Pacific past the sandbar at its mouth where Yurok Indians jig for eels and sea lions frolic as they wait for a run of salmon. A short distance upstream, fishing resorts and camps flank the straight edge of Highway 101 where logging trucks loaded with the trunks of giant redwoods roar past day and night. This is the town of Klamath (pop. 635), a community predicated on Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
Above Klamath, the river loops between high bluffs thick with young redwoods and madrones. Vast gravel bars gleam in the green water and herring gulls scream over the shallows. Then the river narrows gradually, its pace quickening.
Beyond road's end, the river grows wilder, the rapids rougher, the banks only infrequently showing signs of human presence: a sprawling ranch at Apah; a vast and ugly clear-cut, courtesy of the Simpson Timber Company, near Blue Creek; a modernistic house of weathered wood and glass, balanced precariously on a rock where Surpur Creek enters from the west. At the Indian town of Johnson's, eight or nine junked cars rusting on the bluff announce the presence of 200 human beings. Still, the overall impression is one of deep natural beauty: a strong, raucous, clear-running river and big white boulders, some of them topped with equally white driftwood.
But there is another face to the Klamath River, one that has grown uglier each year since 1975. It's a face of war, the Great Klamath-Trinity River Salmon War, the Trinity being the Klamath's principal tributary. Real bullets whiz back and forth across the Klamath at times, Indian firing at white man; Indian at Indian; cop at violator. Last summer a white canoeist was shot in the back far upriver. Like many modern wars, this one has no out-and-out bad guys, unless it be "government," that catchall bad guy of our times. On one side are arrayed sportsmen, resort owners, local law-enforcement officers and the majority of the 3,800-member Yurok tribe that occupies the lower 50 miles of the Klamath-Trinity system. On the other side are 18 to 20 commercial gill-netters, themselves mostly Yuroks, and their backer, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Caught in the middle, to a greater or lesser extent, are 1,400 Hoopa Indians who occupy a 12-mile-square reservation just upriver of the Yuroks; the 500 or so Karok Indians upstream from them; the Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus; various California state officials; and—most poignantly—the salmon and steelhead of the river.
The issues involved in the conflict are so deep-rooted and complex as to require a latter-day Solomon to resolve them, yet if resolution isn't achieved by the time this summer's Chinook run starts later this month, most experts—Indian and non-Indian alike—agree that the Klamath may be finished as a natural salmon fishery. The reason: since 1975, in an exercise of "traditional Indian fishing rights," a small group of Indians (and some non-Indians) has been gillnetting the river so heavily that the salmon of the Klamath-Trinity drainage may have reached the point of no return. The netters aren't fishing just for "subsistence," an ill-defined term that would seem to mean home consumption, but for money. They have been selling their catches for prices up to $6 a pound—in defiance of a 1933 California state law that forbids commercial salmon fishing in any of the state's once salmon-thick rivers, and with the overt approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"This is a river that has been devastated," said U.S. Representative Robert L. Leggett during congressional hearings on the matter last fall. "We have virtually lost the salmon in the Sacramento River, and we have lost them in lots of rivers in California. We are in danger of losing them in this river." Leggett, who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife, was addressing himself to Forrest Gerard, Assistant Secretary of the Interior in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "If there are violations that have occurred out there, those violations ought to be reasonably pursued. There has been the law of the jungle on this river for much too long. It has been utter chaos."
Though the origin of this chaos dates back at least to 1891, when some five northern California Indian tribes were given the Hoopa Reservation on the Klamath, the immediate furor began taking shape in 1969. In that year a downriver Indian named Raymond Mattz was arrested by the California Fish and Game Department agents for gillnetting salmon on the Klamath. In 1972 Mattz took the case—Arnett vs. Five Gill Nets et al.—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and although the Court said nothing about Indians fishing in violation of state law, it did rule that the lower Klamath—the 50 miles below the so-called Hoopa Square—was to be considered part of the reservation. In 1975 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the state had no power to interfere with Indian fishing rights on the reservation unless such regulation was needed to conserve the resource.
The famous (or infamous) Judge Boldt decision of 1972 in the state of Washington had clarified the rights of so-called "treaty" Indians living along the Columbia River drainage to fish for salmon without regulation. Early this May, U.S. District Court Judge Noel P. Fox of Grand Rapids ruled similarly in a case involving Chippewa Indian gill-netters, upholding the rights granted by treaties signed in 1836 and 1855. "The mere passage of time," he wrote, "cannot erode the rights guaranteed by solemn treaties. The Indians have a right to fish today wherever fish are to be found.... It is an Indian treaty case."
But the Hoopa Reservation wasn't set up by treaty. It was established by executive order with no mention of fishing rights. Nonetheless, Mattz and the other commercial fishermen on the Klamath argue that—until recently—no one, the BIA included, had interfered with their gillnetting. During the summer run of 1975, Mattz and a few dozen of his fellow Indians began fishing commercially in a big and blatant way. The BIA did nothing to stop them. The rationale offered was based on debatable anthropological evidence that some Yuroks in pre-white days had occasionally traded salmon for deerskins and artifacts.
The bureau's laissez-faire policy frightened and outraged sports fishermen and the resort owners who had been earning more than $1 million a year from the sport fishery. Under the leadership of Ed Henke, a former San Francisco 49er, the sportsmen banded together in a group called the Klamath/Trinity River Coalition, Inc. "I've been fishing that river for 30 years," says Henke, "and I knew right away that most of the Indians were against commercial fishing. The Yuroks, and the other Indians upstream, know damn well that the resource is fragile, that you don't hit it hard year after year with heavy monofilament gill nets in every eddy and expect to have anything left. The Chinook has a three-to five-year life cycle. When it returns to spawn, it dies, as do all the Pacific salmon. If there isn't enough 'escapement' from the nets, that whole year's return can be wiped out. We've had unconscionably heavy gillnetting now for three years. Figure it out."