Culture, property rights clash at hero's grave - A land dispute near Chief Joseph's monument may force Oregon to decide how owners' rights stack up against history
(Note: Chief Joseph's remains were moved to their current location in 1926. This is not an ancient burial ground. Many people's remains -- from the famous to the unknown -- have been exhumed and moved in order to make way for the National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other agencies and projects. Does moving someone's remains make the new location, as this article implies, an "archeological site"? Certainly, Chief Joseph has a strong place in history, but this is not his original burial location -- which is conspicuous by its absence of mention in this article. So what if a tribal researcher says, "The entire Wallowa Lake basin is his monument, not just that stone" -- should the entire Wallowa Basin be without people so this researcher's opinion can become fact? James Monteith is alternately described as being a rancher and "director of the new Wallowa Land Trust." His opinion, too, is held up to the reader in such a way that it is lent credibility. It is, though, still just his opinion, and he is after Steve and Paula Krieger's land. One could ask, "Why didn't Monteith buy the land when it was for sale and the Kriegers purchased it? Why didn't the Nez Perce tribe buy the land? The reader is asked to thoughtfully consider the implications that language deception has in the perception -- and the facts -- of this issue.)
September 11, 2005
By Laura Oppenheimer or 503-294-5957
The Oregonian
Portland, Oregon
To submit a Letter to the Editor:
Joseph, (Wallowa County) Oregon - A handful of landmarks have defined Oregon for generations.

Smith Rock. Mount Hood. The end of the Lewis and Clark trail.

But construction near such revered places becomes a possibility in the wake of Oregon's new property rights law, Measure 37.

One proposal -- a subdivision near the grave of Native American hero Chief Joseph, in the state's northeast corner -- illustrates how similar battles statewide could divide Oregonians.

For two decades, tribes and property owners have clashed over 60 acres sandwiched between Chief Joseph's burial site and the mountain town bearing his name.

Steve and Paula Krieger, the current owners, say jagged peaks and sparkling water make the perfect backdrop for a subdivision. Native Americans want the land preserved to honor ancestors who spent summers here and, they think, may be buried here.

Ultimately, this case may force Oregonians to decide what happens when one person's entrepreneurial vision threatens another's touchstone. The state is being asked to clarify laws meant to protect cultural resources and to set a threshold for forcibly obtaining land with cultural significance.

The fight over the ground near Chief Joseph's grave escalated in late August when the Kriegers bulldozed dirt roads on their property. Tribal leaders feared construction was imminent; the couple say they're simply improving access for horse riding and for the two dozen cattle their lawyer runs on the property.

Days after the road controversy, a few dozen Native Americans and supporters gathered at the grave to rally against development. Antone Minthorn, leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, says they need to protect valuable places -- "things you can't put words to."

As the group prayed, a tractor descended the Kriegers' hill waving an American flag. Property rights advocates had gathered, staking their position with handwritten signs along the fence line. "Private property is the foundation of freedom," one stated.

The battle has strained friendships. Local merchants can't express opinions without losing business. And a flood of letters trying to lobby Wallowa County officials, six miles down the road in Enterprise, broke the fax machine.

In many ways, the disagreement is tearing the community apart.



County codes vs. opinion


When Joe McCormack was a young boy in Spokane, his father would point toward the Wallowa Mountains and say: "That's God's country. That's where our people are."

McCormack heard stories of Chief Joseph, who led the Nez Perce tribe and negotiated the 1855 treaty that protected some of their lands.

In 1926, his remains were moved to the grassy clearing overlooking Wallowa Lake.

Visitors leave pieces of their lives as remembrances on a stone monument: a horse shoe, a golf tee, a baby picture with curled edges.

As a researcher for the Nez Perce tribal fishery, McCormack stops at the grave often. He talks to local schoolchildren about its significance, asking them to imagine Native American women drying fish while men hunt in the hills.

"The entire Wallowa Lake basin is his monument, not just that stone," McCormack says.

The remote landscape drew Steve and Paula Krieger, too.

Steve Krieger remembered family trips to Joseph as a child and took his wife there for their 1967 honeymoon. "I loved it," Paula Krieger says.

In the late '80s, the couple settled in Wallowa County for good. By then, they had left their Southern California home and accumulated a long string of development projects as part of the family business.

Soon, they spotted the property just north of Chief Joseph's grave, known as the Marr Ranch. City leaders had tagged the land for growth, though it was -- and remains -- outside of town.

Over the years, the Kriegers transferred it between family companies. Tribes' concerns fluctuated along with development plans. In 1997, the federal government used eminent domain to buy 8 acres adjacent to Chief Joseph's grave as a buffer from future construction.

The issue heated up again last year after Wallowa County approved a scaled-back proposal for 11 homes. National attention overwhelmed county offices and consumed one-third of the planning director's time.

Mike Hayward, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, says he felt caught between hard-and-fast codes and public outcry. County rules don't weigh a site's cultural value, Hayward says.

"I don't know what would happen if we just said, 'We're not going to follow our land-use plan. There are more people here against it than for it,' " Hayward says.

Appeals tied up construction, and the case was sent back to the county for more work.

Enter Measure 37. The Kriegers withdrew their development plan and started over, with the measure's promise of waived land-use rules or financial compensation.

For many property owners, the law offers the only shot at development. For the Kriegers, the county's recent approval of a Measure 37 claim simply bypassed one of their opponents' concerns by waiving certain cultural and archaeological reviews.

The Kriegers say they'll submit another proposal late this year, probably for an upscale RV community. Meanwhile, city leaders in Joseph are launching a review of the property to decide whether urban growth is still appropriate.

The showdown tests a little-known state law that allows tribes to designate archaeological sites as significant.

It's unclear how much say that gives them.

Several reports, including one paid for by the Kriegers this summer, failed to find human remains or other significant artifacts. Yet oral and written histories peg the land as a cultural asset for the Nez Perce, and studies have not ruled out future discoveries.

The Kriegers rattle off a list of reasons to develop their land. Other houses -- including the one they live in -- sit just as close to the grave as the proposed homes. Sewer lines and irrigation pipes have already torn up dirt. The condemned buffer zone implied that everybody expected development. Construction would give the county an economic boost. And, they say, they don't understand why the grave site is so significant if it was moved there by white men.

"We all get emotional about things," Steve Krieger says. "But this is land use. Do their emotions take precedence over my property rights?"


Many want land for a park



The Kriegers have rejected several overtures to buy their land as a park, including a $1.2 million offer from the Trust for Public Land (TPL). The group didn't have the money in hand, Steve Krieger says, which made him uncomfortable.

As director of the new Wallowa Land Trust, James Monteith says he's prepared to "make Steve Krieger a very rich man, if that's what this takes."

Monteith is a rancher, a Republican and a believer in property rights. But he says he learned what the land means while serving as a caretaker for previous owners. He remembers his first instructions: "You're going to see a lot of people here. Don't bother them. They're just going fishing."

Some places simply shouldn't be developed, Monteith says.

"This county has a real strong tradition of how people treat each other," he says. "This piece of property is a litmus test."

The evening of the competing rallies, the Kriegers had barely raised their glasses over dinner with friends when the waitress stopped by. The local weekly paper was out, she told them, and they made the front page again.

At the Sports Corral, across the way, owner Larry Snook heartily supports private property rights and economic development. But after 29 years selling hunting and fishing gear, he knows he has to be careful in what he says.

"I don't hate any of those people," Snook says. "I just disagree with them. I don't know why we have to be against each other just because we have different opinions. This country is so full of dividing lines."

Tribal leaders are asking the state or federal government to condemn the Kriegers' property and make it a park.

At this point, that may be the only way to settle the feud, says Bill Oliver, former county planning director. He retired in June after seven years trying to broker a compromise, and the odds seemed increasingly dim in recent months.

"When people get to the point where it's more a matter of principles than anything else," Oliver says, "it's pretty hard to negotiate."

Copyright 2005, The Oregonian.