Situated near the confluence of the Sprague and Williamson Rivers in southern Oregon, in a small valley surrounded by forested mountains, the rural community of Chiloquin would seem to have ample resources for outdoor recreation. But this capital of the Klamath Tribes (Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin peoples) is nearly landlocked. Residents of Chiloquin today have little access to surrounding areas that, for thousands of years, sustained and were stewarded by the Klamath Tribes’ ancestors. Forced to cede millions of acres to the U.S. government in the 19th Century, the Klamath Tribes and the entire local Chiloquin community have struggled economically since the area’s timber industry declined in the late 1980s. Today, there are few outdoor gathering places, especially for children. And elements of the rich Klamath culture in this area have faded.
But with the recent reopening of the Chiloquin Elementary Schoolyard, area children have a long-awaited, high-quality place to play and gather, and residents have a place to learn about and honor the Klamath Tribes’ history and culture. Once a barren space with outdated play equipment, the newly renovated, 8-acre schoolyard is filled with recreational amenities like a covered basketball court, walking paths, a restored meadow, and an outdoor classroom. The space was designed with the help of students and community members during a two-year participatory design process. The schoolyard now doubles as a community park, available to residents after school and on weekends.
Art Ochoa, a tribal member and retired educator, was among the community leaders who partnered with TPL on this project. He says the new schoolyard filled a void in a community long beset by unemployment and poverty. That void was all the more acute given that Chiloquin’s population skews young, with nearly a third of residents under the age of 18, compared with 22 percent nationally. About half of the elementary school’s 180 students belong to the Klamath Tribes.
“In Chiloquin, there’s an open field right in the middle of town, but that’s where young adults who might be making unhealthy and unwise choices hang out,” Ochoa says. “So people don’t feel safe letting their kids go there and play. Having a place to go that’s safe has a tremendous impact on the community, and people appreciate that.”
The Klamath Tribal Council asked if TPL would consider partnering on a new schoolyard, and not long after, Kovalik, the council, and the Klamath County School District kicked off their partnership. Trust for Public Land spearheaded the project by assembling a coalition of a dozen organizations and agencies, identifying funding streams, and shepherding the renovation to completion despite extraordinary obstacles ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to wildfires that threatened Chiloquin in 2020.
In September 2020, Chiloquin Elementary served as a distribution center for food, water, and supplies donated by the Klamath Tribes during the Two Four Two wildfire. That fire devastated the region, forcing more than 600 households to evacuate. School staff and volunteers handed out food and helped neighbors extinguish flames. The elementary school was later recognized by U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who presented administrators with a flag that had flown over the nation’s capitol.
“The Two Four Two wildfire brought out the Chiloquin community’s spirit of unity, and it was inspiring to see their resilience and commitment to come together and provide for each other in that time of need,” says Kristin Kovalik, Oregon state director at Trust for Public Land. “We’re so proud to have worked with the Klamath Tribes, school district, and broader community and hope this can serve as a model for other communities.”