Cover photo: Klamath Falls,
Ore. area farmers and ranchers
story & photos by HANK SIMS
ON JULY 17, FARMERS AND RANCHERS from the area surrounding Klamath Falls, Ore., gathered to welcome the United States Congress to that small town. Some came on horseback, carrying Confederate flags or the Stars and Stripes. Others paraded to the center of town in their off-road vehicles. Others simply marched on foot, waving signs that championed their way of life and denounced those who would seek to meddle in their affairs.
Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, stood before a podium in front of the Ross Ragland Theater to pump up the crowd on the issue that brought five members of Congress, all Republicans, to Klamath Falls that morning -- the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), which Bushue called an "outmoded law that has accomplished little more than decades of unnecessary pain and harm."
"Klamath Falls has become an unwilling poster child for the failure of an Endangered Species Act that impacts all of us," he said. "The Act is a colossal failure, yet we continue to put people out of business, pour money down rat-holes and get no results."
The Klamath River is a 250-mile umbilical cord connecting liberal Humboldt County with a little piece of red-state America. Just as people downstream remember the fish kill of 2002, in which nearly 35,000 salmon died on the banks after being stranded in the river's first few miles, the farmers in the Klamath Basin -- the upstream agricultural community -- remember 2001. In that dry year, water from the Klamath was denied to upstream irrigators after regulatory agencies determined that three endangered or threatened fish -- including the Klamath's run of coho salmon, which was listed as a threatened species in 1997 -- would be impacted by low flows. Calls to reform or do away with the ESA have been emanating from Klamath Falls, the political center of the basin, ever since. And politicians have been listening. [See Klamath basin map at end of article]
Defend farmers, defend Bush
As Bushue spoke, the Ragland Theater was preparing to host a hearing conducted by the House Committee on Resources, the body in the House of Representatives that sets the agenda for legislation concerning mining, forestry, water and other natural resources. The committee was considering two pieces of legislation that would reform the ESA, one of them authored by Greg Walden, Klamath Falls' representative in Congress.
"Winning passage of this legislation would be a tremendous victory, and the culmination of years and years of hard sacrifice," the Farm Bureau's Bushue continued. "But it will be all for naught if we don't have someone in the White House who understands the devastation and heartbreak caused by this draconian law and the need for its reform -- someone with a proven record of leadership, passion and commitment to our natural resources, environment and agriculture. We have that someone in the White House in George W. Bush. We know that we can count on President Bush to help family farmers and rural America. He is counting on each and every one of us to do our part between now and the November election."
As Bushue's speech made clear, that day's congressional meeting may have had other purposes than ESA reform, which is a long-term project unlikely to gain much traction soon. The House Committee on Resources approved the two proposed amendments to the ESA on July 21, sending them to the floor of the House of Representatives for a full vote. Though many believe that they stand a good chance there, even the committee's chairman, California Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), admitted last week that they are unlikely to be approved by the current Senate.
It wasn't that the farmers desperately needed the reforms at this time, anyway. Since 2002, Klamath water has been managed under a 10-year plan that firmly favors agricultural interests.
But there were few issues as likely to energize this particular crowd in an election year, when Republicans need all the Oregon votes they can get. In 2000, Vice-President Al Gore won the state by fewer than 7,000 votes -- a margin of less than a half of a percentage point -- and Republicans in the state and in Washington, D.C., would obviously like to see that margin reversed in a race as tight as this year's. This wasn't the first time the Klamath and the various constituencies that depend upon it were being asked to play a role in national politics.
Left to right: Representatives
Wally Herger (R-CA), Greg Walden (R-OR),
In 2001, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) reviewed a plan for water rationing on the Klamath and decided that it would place the coho salmon as well as two upstream fish species in jeopardy. The opinions forced the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Klamath water flows, to cease delivery of water to farmers in the Klamath Basin, and spawned a flurry of national attention. Farmers stormed the gates holding the water back and attempted to forcibly pry them open. Klamath crops -- alfalfa, barley, potatoes -- withered in the fields.
On a swing through Oregon the following January, President Bush addressed the subject directly. "We'll do everything we can to make sure water is available for those who farm," he said.
The Wall Street Journal later reported that Karl Rove, the president's political advisor, had met with senior managers at the U.S. Department of Interior -- which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation -- shortly after Bush's Oregon visit. Rove reportedly spoke to them about political considerations in the state of Oregon, and talked about the importance of Klamath water to local farmers.
When a NMFS biologist prepared an opinion that showed that the fish faced similar problems in 2002, he was told that it was unacceptable and was ordered to revise it. He later withdrew from the project, charging political interference with his work, and eventually quit his job (see "The Klamath Whistleblower," Nov. 13, 2003). That April, Interior Secretary Gale Norton personally came to Klamath Falls to inaugurate the new water regime. The fish kill followed in the fall.
"The things we've seen here in the basin have given me a great passion to try to fix this law -- to fix it so that it works for the people and to fix it so it works for the species," Rep. Walden said at the opening of the hearing to a crowd of about 500 in the Ragland Theater. [Walden in photo below left]
Walden's bill -- called "Sound Science for Endangered Species Act Planning" -- seeks to eliminate provisions of the act that led to the shut-off of water to Klamath Basin farmers in 2001. In particular, it would require that decisions made pursuant to the ESA, such as whether to list a species as endangered or, as in the Klamath case, to issue an opinion that would require a change in action in order to protect a species, to undergo "peer review."
Under Walden's legislation, a theoretically independent panel of scientists would review opinions like those generated by National Marine Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2001. But critics of the bill note that the panel would be appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, who is in turn appointed by the president. This leads many to fear a further politicization of science, something that has already caused concern among scientists as well as opposition legislators under the Bush administration.
Earlier this month, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report documenting numerous cases of scientists being subjected to "litmus tests" before being allowed to serve on scientific advisory panels. In particular, two distinguished scientists who were being considered for posts on the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research reported that they were asked what they thought of President Bush and the current administration's policies.
Peer review would also require that scientists use only empirical data collected from the field, rather than computer modeling of a population -- which some scientists say would tie their hands when decisions have to be made relatively quickly in order to protect a species.
But for some of the speakers and many of the farmers attending the congressional hearing, such concerns were nothing compared to their strong desire to punish the law that harmed them in 2001. Rep. John Doolittle (R-Roseville) [photo at right] who represents some Klamath Basin farmers on the California side, took a hard line at the Klamath Falls hearing. Doolittle decried such mediated solutions as the Klamath "water bank" -- a federal buyback of water rights from willing farmers -- and scolded employees of USFW and NMFS for their 2001 opinions that mandated higher flows to protect the fish.
"As the people's elected representative in one congressional district for the state of California, I would urge you to do everything you can to err on the side of the people who live here," Doolittle said, to gathering excitement. "If you have to make a choice that either benefits the people or the species, and you have that discretion, err on the side of the people! After all, God created the Earth for men and women."
The cheers that shook the Ragland Theater following Doolittle's speech dwarfed those given to the more measured comments offered by Walden or the other representatives.
Another fish kill?
Little mention was made of the fish kill at the Klamath Falls hearing. "The Klamath tragedy," a phrase used frequently that day, referred exclusively to the 2001 shut-off. Given the makeup of the subcommittee, two local leaders invited to testify before the commission -- Supervisor Jimmy Smith, a former commercial fisherman, and Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe -- could hope only to interject some measure of consciousness about the plight of tribes and fishermen.
Speaking as a representative of the Klamath River Inter-Tribal Fish and Water Commission, Fletcher said that from the tribes' point of view the ESA was not doing nearly enough. The federal government, he said, had the legal responsibility to maintain tribal resources, including the Klamath and its fish.
"With regard to the specific application of the Endangered Species Act in the Klamath Basin, it's important to note that the goals of the ESA fall way short of implementing the United States' solemn commitments to Native people in the basin," Fletcher said.
Smith said that although Humboldt County was dedicated to preserving agricultural land -- a dedication he said extended to its neighbors upstream -- the loss of salmon stocks over the years has taken a devastating toll on a once-thriving local industry. [above right: coho salmon]
In the third year of the Bureau of Reclamation's 10-year management plan for the Klamath, the problems of 2002 may now be set to repeat themselves. Denver Nelson, a retired McKinleyville neurosurgeon who devotes his time to researching local rivers, has noticed that water levels at the mouth of the Klamath have recently bottomed out at 2002 levels -- an ominous sign. [See chart at end of article]
"This year, I believe, we're headed for a fish kill year," Nelson said. "You can't have full allotments of water for everybody. That's the bottom line."
In the coming weeks, the lower levels could force supporters of Walden's bill into a game of chicken with their theory -- based on a report that served as the model for the "sound science" proposal -- that low flows were not to blame for the 2002 fish kill. Unless more water is released into the river -- either from the Klamath dams or from Lewiston Dam on the Trinity River, a major Klamath tributary -- the Republican Party will be moving into August and September flirting with the risk of yet another mass salmon die-off on the television news.
After the hearing had ended, Smith made a special point of going up to Doolittle -- the committee member who had displayed the least concern for the fishermen and the tribes -- to thank the congressman for hearing his testimony. Smith said later that he wanted Doolittle and his supporters to know that he could be trusted to negotiate in good faith.
"The solution is going to take cooperation with the people in the Klamath Basin," he said. "I want to be there, and I hope they have the confidence to invite me back."
Many of the Klamath Basin farmers appeared receptive to a solution based on negotiations with their counterparts downstream. Organizers of the rally before the hearing invited the Yuroks' Troy Fletcher and Allen Foreman, chairman of the Klamath Tribe, to address the crowd; when the tribal representatives didn't come off as radicals looking to end the farmers' way of life, they respectfully listened and even applauded.
But if upstream and downstream are to come together to solve their differences, the Klamath will have to be relieved of its duties as a political symbol -- a river that divides communities instead of uniting them.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.