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Half-measures in the Klamath Valley

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted October 8, 2001

Hundreds of thousands of acres of the Klamath Valley in southwest Oregon have gone without irrigation water this summer; most of the 1,500 affected farm families have suffered total crop loss and those losses may total $250 million -- dwarfing a $20 million emergency federal aid package.

But the problem isn't drought -- there's plenty of water behind the dam which the federal government built in 1909, thereafter holding "land lotteries" for veterans of both the First and Second World Wars, encouraging the winners to settle the valley and set up farms by signing contracts which promised irrigation water would always be provided.

"It was a beautiful trade-off until a month ago, when the Bureau of Reclamation broke the contract, leaving 90 percent of the farms -- some 200,000 acres of land -- without water," the Wall Street Journal editorialized last May.

"What caused the U.S. government to condemn 1,500 farms, a $250 million industry, to oblivion? To save sucker fish, a bottom-feeding scavenger that got on the Endangered Species Act in 1988. ...

"The Bureau of Reclamation is hiding behind biological opinions issued in April ... that say the sucker needs more water," the Journal continued.

"But the Bureau's maddening folly is that it abides by science already proven an abject failure in that other great Northwest fish story: salmon."

Although "Environmentalists ... saw this was a perfect way to pursue their broader antigrowth agenda -- to force farmers off the land, blow up dams, get rid of barges," attempts to restore salmon runs by increasing water flows past the region's many dams have been an abject failure, the Journal reports.

But if this isn't really about saving fish, who would want to see these farmers driven off the land? The Oregon Natural Resources Council, for one. That group has drafted a plan under which the federal government would buy much of the basin's farmland and set it aside as a "desert preserve."

Environmentalists like Andy Kerr of the ONRC hate the region's very lushness because it's artificial -- what had once been a high desert was transformed into a garden spot by the the intervention of mankind, you see, damming and diverting the Klamath River in a massive public works project completed in 1909. In direct opposition to the ancient biblical notion that it's man's proper role to make the earth fruitful, eco-extremists hate such interventions as "unnatural."

"Environmentalists often say their use of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is for the benefit of humanity," points out Glenn Woiceshyn of the Ayn Rand Institute. But "whenever man's needs conflict with the 'interests of nature,' as they now do in Klamath Basin, environmentalist always take the side of nature.

"The environmentalist subscribe to an 'intrinsic value' ethic, which means that nature must be valued -- not for any benefit it brings to man, but because nature is somehow a value in and of itself," Mr. Woiceshyn continues. "Hence, nature must be kept pristine despite the harm this causes man. We must halt activities beneficial to us, such as farming, forestry, and the treatment of disease, in order to safeguard fish, birds, trees, and rats. We are being told to sacrifice our lives to nature. ..."

In a wave of civil disobedience, hundreds of local farmers seized the headgates of Klamath Lake, using saws or blowtorches to open the valves to feed irrigation water into their canal on at least three occasions in June and July. Bureau of Reclamation officials closed them again, turning to federal marshals and the FBI to help them keep the gates closed after the local sheriff refused to intervene.

"Already, in towns like Klamath Falls, population 17,000, and Tulelake, Calif., population 1,000, businesses have begun to close and school populations have plunged by as much as 30 percent, reflecting an exodus of farm workers," The New York Times was reporting by June.

Actually, the Endangered Species Act offers opt-out provisions designed to get around such travesties as what's been happening in the Klamath Valley. The Endangered Species Committee -- a panel made up of seven cabinet-level officials and informally known as the God Squad -- is charged with weighing economics against the risks of extinction and has the power to override provisions of the law that promise primacy to the protection of listed plants and animals. But Interior Secretary Gale Norton has resisted pressure to convene the "God Squad."

Instead, on October 2, the Interior Department agreed to an independent review of the scientific findings that led to the virtual shutdown of water to farmers in the Klamath Basin. Interior Secretary Norton said the National Academy of Sciences will review scientific and technical information regarding the two types of endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake, as well as the coho salmon downstream.

"It's good news, but it's not going to be in time for next year's growing season," points out Mike Byrne, who farms alfalfa and barley in Tulelake. "People are already trying to figure out what to do next year. They have to deal with their bankers."

The findings of credible scientists hired by the Klamath irrigators suggest the suckers are doing far better than federal biologists have suggested. Their populations, which numbered about 5,000 in the lake when the species were listed as endangered more than a decade ago, have swelled to at least 100,000, and might actually be harmed by excess water behind the dam, according to those reports -- which federal courts have so far refused to consider.

But that's not even the main point. Congress was duped in 1973 into passing the Endangered Species Act by assurances it would be used primarily to make sure the continent's last grizzly bear, last bison, or last bald eagle wasn't shot as a pest and sold for dog food.

Instead, the ESA has been widely used by the green extreme to identify a "marker" subspecies in virtually any eco-system, like the "threatened" bull trout of the Jarbidge Canyon, the "threatened" Mojave Desert Tortoise (now so plentiful in government shelters that they have to be euthanized) -- even threatened maggots or invisible blue butterflies that "might" someday visit the coastal grasslands of Southern California -- thus using the Act to block virtually any kind of proposed new progress or development.

"In the dry years we always shared our water with the fish and the Indians. I don't think any fish died," local horseradish farmer Paul Christy (who came to the Klamath Basin after serving in World War II, attracted by the federal government's offers of land and water) told Pat Taylor of CNS News in May. "The people who passed the Endangered Species Act had a good idea, but now it's being used as a club against the farmers."

The ESA was due for renewal by the Congress in 1990, but revisiting the Act has been blocked by the very eco-Luddites who originally sponsored it, out of understandable concern that common-sense legislators -- now aware of the extremists' real agenda -- would take the opportunity to moderate its most bizarre and anti-human impacts.

"Rather than spending tax dollars to mitigate the damaging effects of one of its own laws, Congress should amend the ESA to add protection for endangered farmers and ranchers," suggested Gretchen Randall of the National Center for Public Policy Research in a recent position paper. "It could prohibit any government agency from taking action that diminishes the value of private property or require that compensation for damages be paid. Congress could also require an independent scientific review of all proposed listings of threatened and endangered species. ..."

Indeed, that's the kind of radical reform the Bush administration ought to be pursuing.

In the Klamath Basin "The damage is done," concludes Anne Hayes, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented water users in an attempt to get the governors of California and Oregon to petition for the "God Squad" to be convened this summer.

For Secretary Norton to order an Academy of Sciences review at this late date is really "a cop-out," attorney Hayes said October 3. "The God Squad is the only for people to sit down and solve a resources allocation problem -- 'How do we do this in a way that doesn't harm the farmers, that doesn't harm the fish?' ...

"When it comes to protecting species it does so in an extremely costly and ineffective way and people don't matter. But for the environmentalists it's an extremely useful tool towards achieving their real goal, which is stopping the resource industries: farming, mining, lumber. We call it 'toad-throwing.' If you want to stop your neighbor from doing something you just call Fish & Wildlife and throw down a toad on their property ..."

All that's really being decided in the ongoing arbitration in the Klamath Basin is "how much land will go to the Indians, how much will go into the reserve ... and that was the whole purpose in the first place," attorney Hayes explains. "As one of the farmers put it, 'Rural Cleansing,' to take some of the farmland out of production. ...

"What happened up there got a lot of attention from the American public, they're finally seeing just how harsh the Endangered Species Act can be .

And you're going to have results like that repeated over and over and over again, as long as we have the Endangered Species Act. It's just a bad law."

The kind of law the American people elected a new Republican administration to radically reform or repeal.

They're still waiting.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. To receive his longer, better stuff, subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $72 to Privacy Alert, 561 Keystone Ave., Suite 684, Reno, NV 89503 -- or dialing 775-348-8591. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at 1-800-244-2224, or via web site www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Klamath Falls' invisible foe by Henry Lamb (July 23, 2001)
    Henry Lamb is of the opinion that the people of Klamath Falls are suffering ultimately because of a foe they can't even see. A hint? It's everyone favourite world body
  • Yes to suckerfish. No to humans by Tom DeWeese (July 23, 2001)
    The decision to shut off the water in Klamath Falls, Oregon is nothing less than an attack on the people who have lived and worked there for decades, writes Tom DeWeese
  • Tightening the screws by Henry Lamb (May 7, 2001)
    Although the Clinton administration is only but a bad memory, the drive to displace humans from their land continues in earnest, reports Henry Lamb
  • The sanction of the victim by Tom DeWeese (April 16, 2001)
    Why do environmentalists get away with the evil that they do? Tom DeWeese says it's because you let them
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