'War on the West'; Fish Trump Farmers in Klamath Dispute

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 26, 2002 | Go to article overview

'War on the West'; Fish Trump Farmers in Klamath Dispute


Byline: Greg Walden, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Not since the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, when public officials in the West threatened to jail federal land managers, has the frustration felt by citizens in our part of the country over burdensome government decisions been nearer to the boiling point. This time, the storm centers around the scientific validity of federal environmental policies , which many residents of the West are convinced favor endangered species at the expense of people who make their living from agriculture and natural resource production.

For more than nine months a debate reminiscent of the spotted owl controversy of the early 1990s has raged in the Klamath Basin of Southern Oregon and Northern California over endangered sucker fish and Coho salmon that populate Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River. Both these fish and local farmers and ranchers depend on the lake water for their survival, ensuring a clash would arise when a severe drought struck the region in 2000 and 2001. A subsequent determination by the federal government that the resulting low lake levels and river flows threatened fish survivability led to a complete shut-off of irrigation water in April 2001. Understandably, the decision ignited fierce objection among local residents, and the Klamath Basin became a case study on the unintended ill effects of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Established by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1906, the Klamath Project transformed a patch of land largely unsuitable for agriculture into a prosperous farming community. The government's explicit promise of permanent water rights for agriculture attracted thousands of farmers to the Klamath Basin, where their descendants have farmed for generations. Nevertheless, under the ESA this promise became subordinate to the interests of endangered species. After the water shut-off, agriculture in the Klamath Basin dried up. A joint study by Oregon State University and the University of California at Berkeley estimates that the regional economy has lost $134 million to date as a result of the government's actions.

A reasonable person might assume that before embarking on a course that is utterly incompatible with a healthy agricultural economy, the federal agencies would be armed with unimpeachable scientific justification. Sadly, that was not the case. A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report confirmed what farmers in the Klamath Basin have long suspected - that the government's decision to shut off irrigation water had "no sound scientific basis." The report went further to suggest that high river flows in the Klamath River as recommended by the federal agencies might actually be lethal to the salmon. This vindication, however sweet to opponents of the ESA, will do little to console the 1,400 farm families whose livelihood has been destroyed by the federal government and the larger community that depends upon a stable agriculture sector. …

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