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November 23, 2006
The people v. FERC
tell agency to drop the dams
story and photos by HEIDI WALTERS
It seemed like everybody was there. Some had driven
the riverine, twisty highways out of the mountains of the mid-Klamath
region -- from Orleans, Somes Bar, Salmon River, Blue Creek.
Others came from the mouth of the Klamath. Some moseyed over
from their Eureka homes or from Arcata and McKinleyville, or
traveled up from southern Humboldt or Sacramento.
There were Yurok, Karuk and Hupa people. There
were non-Indians. Ocean fishers. River guides. Congresspeople,
or their reps. There were college students, scientists, kids,
conservationists, city people, river people and even a sympathetic
farmer or two.
It was Thursday night, and inside the Red Lion
in Eureka the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was holding
a hearing on its draft environmental impact report for the proposed
relicensing of PacifiCorp's Klamath River dams, now owned by
billionaire Warren Buffett. The Klamath Hydroelectric Project's
50-year license expired in March, and FERC is considering relicensing
the project for another 30 to 50 years. This hearing was one
in a series being held across the region before the public comment
period ends Dec. 1.
But, just like the last time FERC came to town
for a Klamath River meeting, the agency had underestimated the
numbers that would show up. Even before the official start time
of 7 p.m. arrived, the long, narrow room was already packed to
the gills -- 250 people, the maximum allowed. Further entry was
barred in order not to incur the wrath of the fire marshal or
induce death by suffocation among the attendees.
So for the next nearly five hours, about 150 thwarted
people wriggled up and down the long, tight, packed hallway outside
the hearing doors, waiting for a chance to be let in as others
left. Some of them gave up and went home. Many wandered in and
out of a room across the hall from the hearing that the Northcoast
Environmental Center had reserved for the anticipated stranded
attendees. There were speeches, protest signs -- "Un-dam
the Klamath!" -- and informational posters and a new video
by the Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative called "Solving
the Klamath Crisis: Keeping Farms and Fish Alive."
Inside the NEC room, biologist Pat Higgins was
explaining to a passerby the Klamath's water quality and temperature
problems and the dams and dikes that have caused them, and how
FERC's recommendations in the draft EIS fall short. He and other
critics, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, say
FERC's draft EIS analyzes the removal of just two dams, when
it should consider removal of all four of the lower dams -- Copco
I and II, J.C. Boyle, Iron Gate -- that have blocked fish from
350 miles of river for decades. FERC staff, instead, recommend
trapping and trucking some Chinook salmon around the dams to
repopulate a portion of upstream river. Critics say such a plan
is weak, and besides would do nothing for the other species who
once had passage to the upper reaches, such as the coho salmon,
steelhead, lamprey and green sturgeon.
"Trap and haul -- they tried it in the `60s,
when they built Iron Gate Dam, and it didn't work," Higgins
said. "I think they need to take the [four main hydro] dams
out. They need to leave Link River Dam, which regulates water
levels in Klamath Lake, for the fish. And if they leave Keno
Dam, they need to restore the wetlands adjacent to the Klamath
River in that reach."
Back out in the hallway, the crowd grew. Even Toxic
Algae Monster was there, haunting a corner by the kitchen doors
in her green fuzzy hat, green-painted face and green clothes
and holding a big cardboard sign that said "Please don't
leave. Stay until your voice is heard!!!" Rani Rhoar, who's
lived in Orleans by the Klamath River for 12 years, said she
was at FERC's hearing in Yreka the day before and at a water
quality board meeting in Sacramento before that. But this was
the first time she'd dressed up as the toxic algae that has been
increasingly plaguing the river and its reservoirs.
"When I first moved to the Klamath River,
I used to swim in it," she said. "Today, I don't swim
in it, I don't raft in it, I don't touch it. They need to remove
the Klamath dams and restore the river. And make humane decisions."
Standing near the algae monster were fellow Orleans
residents Quentin Peterson, with blue and purple dyed hair and
earrings, and Richard Buhler, whose bright red dyed hair, red-satin-lined
black trench coat and kind young face made him look like a friendly
devil. (Unlike the algae monster, this is their usual look.)
They grew up in Orleans. Peterson's a firefighter, crab fisherman
and part-time river guide. He said he tries to make it to every
river-related meeting he can. "My dad was a river guide
my whole life, drift-boat guiding and rafting trips. I was raised
in a boat. I caught my first fish when I was 3 years old."
He and Buhler reminisced about the rope swing they used to play
on that hung from a bridge over the river. "Now I won't
go in the Klamath," Peterson said. "I won't let my
animals in the water. I took people out rafting a couple times
this summer, but we had to go to the Salmon River instead. We
canceled a couple of trips. I was there for the fish kills in
2002 -- there were so many dead fish, we couldn't get the boat
in the water. Also, half the reason I go to the river is its
beauty. Now it's gross. There's algae hanging off the rocks,
every pool is stagnant."
Buhler, who crews on salmon and crab boats, said
for this year's salmon season -- closed in Oregon and California,
for the most part, because of low salmon counts in the Klamath
-- he had to go to Alaska to work. "I would prefer to stay
here," he said. "But if you fish for a livelihood,
you can't skip a season."
Down the hall, Nat Pennington wanted to talk about
the Salmon River, where he lives. It's un-dammed, and the cleanest
major tributary to the Klamath River. But it has had "the
three lowest runs of spring and fall Chinook in record history,"
said Pennington. "So we feel like the water quality issues
created in the Klamath are a major impact on our salmon runs."
Near him stood Jason Reed, who'd just been interviewed
by a TV station. Like many of the young men there that night,
he wore a knit cap with traditional tribal designs. Reed, a College
of the Redwoods student, is Karuk and Hupa. "Salmon is like
a family to us," he said. "What are we going to do
when the salmon is gone? I was raised on the river. I remember
there being lots of fish. I remember packing -- in gunny sack's
-- like, five fish at a time. And this was just one round. Pack
'em, clean 'em, and go back to the river again for more. Today,
we're lucky if we get five."
Back at the other end, Hoopa Valley Tribal chairman
Clifford Lyle Marshall and the tribe's senior attorney, Grett
Hurley, stood talking. "I'm surprised that there aren't
more people here," Marshall said. "[But] this
is a healthy showing. It's a reflection of the widespread concern.
It's not just Indians and it's not just fishermen. It's people
from Eureka. And other places."
Finally, some space opened up inside the hearing
There, rows and rows of people -- including several children,
holding large salmon puppets on sticks, from the American Indian
Academy Charter School in McKinleyville -- faced a table at which
sat three FERC men. One after another, the people stood and delivered
lengthy speeches, some fact-filled, others emotional. The FERC
men, their job here simply to listen, sat silently -- white,
gray, impassive, eyelids fluttering shut. They hadn't taken a
break, and no doubt were weary. Even so, the scene seemed like
the personification of a choked river full of desperate salmon
leaping at an immovable concrete wall.
State Senator Wesley Chesbro was just getting up
to speak. "You can hear the frustration in the voices"
of these people, he said. The draft EIS, he said, was flawed,
and FERC should tear down not two dams, but four -- and the state
would be there with the cash to help restore the river.
Right: Rani Rhoar, toxic algae monster.
Then a familiar figure took the floor. As he spoke,
the crowd tensed and glared at him. "My name is Dennis Mayo,
I'm a native Humboldt County boy," he said. He warned that
he might offend some people. "I'm here tonight to make comments
from the farming and ranching community, and also as a recreational
fisherman and a past commercial fisherman and an avid duck and
goose hunter. I have farmed and ranched throughout the Klamath
Basin and I currently have stock on feed in the upper Klamath.
My community is sick and tired of the almost xenophobic way the
environmental groups have attacked us and our livelihood. It
has to stop. In the past we have been played off against the
native and fishing communities in every conceivable way."
Mayo accused environmentalists of hurting "working
folks" and helping destroy rural communities. He told FERC
they were not to be trusted. But then he said: "We want
FERC to know that we don't need these dams for our irrigation,
or flood control, and that we are getting no benefit from the
meager electrical output. We want FERC to know that the Klamath
dams have not only lived out their usefulness as electric generators,
they might have also lived out the life blood of the river: the
salmon. If that happens and the salmon die, also dies the life
blood to the soul of the Klamath's native peoples. That cannot
be allowed to happen. We want to tell FERC that we will see to
it that our neighbors are not stomped on, broken or bankrupted
as we make sure these dams are decommissioned."
He implored the by-now confused "enviro community"
to "get off the superiority trip," and he asked the
Northcoast Environmental Center to pull from its website "the
discriminatory caricature of a fat cowboy/potato farmer with
his pockets stuffed full of cash."
After that, a Yurok man remembered three kids who'd
gone swimming in the river, even though they were told not to,
and came out covered in bumps. A commercial fisherman said he's
fished for 30 years in the ocean, and though he's suffered from
restrictions, his "heart goes out to the Indians" more.
Lyn Risling, Karuk-Yurok and a Hoopa Valley Tribe member, likened
the loss of traditional foods such as salmon, deer, acorns and
berries to a continued genocide of her people, ravaged now by
diabetes and other ills.
Back out in the hallway, Dale Ann Frye Sherman
-- half Yurok, half Tolowa -- and Yurok Tribe members David Gensaw,
Sr. and Willard Carlson, Jr. were getting ready to leave. They
hadn't had a chance to give their comments yet, but midnight
was approaching and some people had to work the next day. They
"They're going to do it anyway," said
Gensaw about the FERC team. "Their attitude -- they don't
even want to be here. They're falling asleep. And why are we
pleading? We should be demanding!"
"They don't even live here," said Sherman.
"If they don't tear those dams down, and they
get relicensed, the writing's on the wall," said Gensaw.
"The salmon will be gone."
"And, in essence what that means is, we as
a people will be gone," added Sherman.
"You can't convince me it wasn't a conspiracy,"
said Gensaw. "If they kill the system, if they kill the
fish, then they won't have a fight for the water. The water's
like oil. We've got a war on because of oil. But you can live
They talked about the fish wars in the 1970s when
the federal government showed up in the Indian river communities
wearing riot gear while the Indians fought for their traditional
But there was a glimmer of hope, they admitted.
"This is the first time I've come to the Red Lion [for a
hearing] in years that the people didn't say, `The Native Americans
overfished with their gill nets,'" said Carlson, who lives
on Blue Creek, a tributary to the Klamath.
"They used to be our enemies," said Gensaw
about all the non-Indians at the hearing. "Now they're our
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