The Wallowas were awash with rain on Thursday.
It was not nearly enough to drown the delight of the Nez Perce Indians.
Hundreds of them and their friends gathered in a high meadow to celebrate the return of the Nez Perce to Wallowa County.
Officially, they were here to dedicate 10,300 acres that the tribe will manage as wildlife habitat.
Emotionally, they were here to hug the land.
“I can’t explain the feeling I get when I come here,” said tearful elder Agnes Andrews Davis. “It’s a feeling that goes from the top of my head to my feet.”
“We always called this home,” said Jeannie Redthunder Moon, great-great-granddaughter of Chief Joseph.
Joseph and his band were among those who refused to move from their ancestral homeland in northeastern Oregon to a reservation. In 1877, they fled toward Canada, pursued by federal soldiers.
Defeated and vowing to “fight no more forever,” Joseph was exiled. Allowed to settle in Nespelem, Wash., he futilely begged the government to let his people return to the Wallowas.
He even tried to buy land there, tribal leader Sam Penney said Thursday. No one would sell to him.
“It’s taken almost 120 years to the day for the Nez Perce to return to this area, this time as landowners,” Penney said.
He noted with irony that traditional Nez Perce never believed that land could be owned.
Penney is chairman of the executive committee for the Nez Perce Tribe, which is based across the Snake River in Lapwai, Idaho.
The Lapwai Nez Perce are mostly descendents of those who did sign a federal treaty and moved to the reservation. But they were no less eager than Joseph’s band to be re-established in Wallowa County, which remains a traditional place to hunt. And to find themselves.
“I like to come here and remember why my skin is the color it is, why my hair is the color it is said Ezra Whitman, who just graduated from Lapwai High School.
The tribe bought the land with money from the Bonneville Power Administration. The agency is required by law to make up for the loss of habitat caused by the flooding of land behind the region’s federal dams.
This is Bonneville’s first wildlife mitigation project, and it’s big.
Bonneville will spend $4.7 million so the Nez Perce can buy 16,500 acres. In addition to the 10,300-acre ranch, the tribe has an option to buy an adjoining 4,600 acres and is looking around for the balance.
On Thursday, the Nez Perce dubbed their new Wallowa property the “Precious Land.” The story of its protection began in 1958, when an airline pilot named John L. Magden was ready to escape city life.
He debated whether to buy a coffee plantation or a ranch he saw advertised in Oregon. Having seen the dramatic Wallowa landscape from the air, he decided to buy that, sight unseen, recalled Hans Magden, one of his four sons.
The elder Magden eventually owned 22,000 acres. When he died in 1991, Hans and his brother, Leif, inherited 10,300 acres.
The scenery is spectacular here, but the ranching is rough and logging can be especially destructive. The Magdens decided that the best use for the property was as habitat.
Hans Magden heard of the Trust for Public Lands and its reputation for conserving property. In 1993 he contacted Bowen Blair Jr., TPL vice president.
Blair is accustomed to visiting wildlife habitat, then being disappointed with nothing more than the sight of a few birds. He was stunned by what he saw on his first visit to the ranch.
“We scared eight or nine bears, we saw bighorn sheep, we saw cougar prints in the mud….”
TPL took an option on the land, hoping to protect it until a buyer could be found. Blair wasn’t optimistic. Only a government agency could afford the ranch, and he knew Wallowa County officials would protest any loss of private land from their small tax base.
He talked to Peter Paquet, wildlife manager for the Northwest Power Planning Council. The council must OK Bonneville expenditures.
Paquet suggested that the Nez Perce tribe might be interested in managing the land. He knew that the tribe already had a good relationship with Wallow County officials, thanks to a joint watershed protection effort.
So tribal wildlife director Keith Lawrence and treasurer Jaime Pinkham met with county commissioner Pat Wortman.
“We got together for doughnuts and coffee,” recalled Pinkham. “We brought to him the concept of bringing the tribe back.”
Wortman liked it. But he said the county had three concerns: the loss of property tax revenue, the protection of the land from fire and weeds, and the desire for multiple use management.
The Nez Perce agreed to make payments in lieu of taxes. Its management plan, yet to be written, may allow for grazing and logging if they’re compatible with wildlife protection.
The tribe is more than eager to keep star thistle and other weeds from taking hold amid the native bunchgrass.
The county’s approval was a big green light for the project. But there were plenty of red ones, too, mostly from the Bonneville bureaucracy.
There are lots of demands on the agency’s money and at times supporters despaired of getting any of it.
“This project died, time and again,” said Blair. “We worked so hard for so long, then had people in authority say, ‘This is dead, forget it.”’
But with the support of Oregon and Washington members of the Power Planning Council, the Bonneville purse strings loosened.
The Magden family credits the professionalism of the TPL staff for making the deal go through. Blair credits the family, which twice renewed the organization’s option on the land.
Hans Magden is pleased that the family’s effort to protect wildlife ended up helping right an historical wrong.
“I thought that was justice,” he said. “That was the perfect ending.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos; Map of area deeded to Nez Perce Tribe
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CELEBRATIONS Tribal celebrations continue this afternoon through Sunday with the Chief Joseph and Warriors Memorial Powwow at the Pi-Nee-Waus in Lapwai. On Tuesday, a Memorial ceremony will be held at Whitebird, Idaho, marking the initial battle of the Nez Perce War.