Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

An Environmentalist's Vision for the Klamath Basin

Suggested Citation. Kerr, Andy. July 7, 1993. Speech before the Tule Lake Rotary, Tulelake California.

I want to thank the Tule Lake Rotary for the opportunity to address you this evening. I've spoken to some rotary groups before, but never before such a large audience and during prime time.

When I was first asked by Frank Goodson to speak to you this evening, I strongly resisted the invitation; partly because he then wanted me to come down in the next few weeks and my schedule would not allow. But more importantly, I didn't believe that my coming and talking would do any good. It wasn't an attempt to avoid the hostility that many of you hold toward the Oregon Natural Resources Council. I don't mind conflict and confrontation if I feel it can lead somewhere.

Finally, I relented, partly figuring that the possibility exists for communication and understanding, if not cooperation. Of course, the fact that the Tule Lake Rotary decided to meet my demand for the $1000 honoraria to address you tonight, meant that I no longer had a convenient excuse to get out of coming, as well as now having the financial incentive to come. (I should have said $2,000). For the record, the money will not go in my pocket but directly to ONRC for our work in the Klamath Basin.

The topic I was asked by the Rotary to address was "The Future of Farming in the Klamath Basin." But I don't know much about farming in the Klamath Basin. I countered with a proposal that my talk be entitled "An environmentalist's vision for the Klamath Basin." This was acceptable to the Rotary.

To have a clear vision for the future, one must have a clear view of the past. The Klamath Basin has changed dramatically since European conquest; and that conquest came long enough ago, that even our most elder didn't see, and cannot see, what it looked like before.

Before the building of the railroad. Before the Bureau of Reclamation. Before Weyerhaeuser. Before livestock. Before the plow. Before the dams blocked the salmon.

But the historical record exists for us to review. The Klamath Basin was, and still is in spite of our neglect, a region of tremendous biological diversity and of national importance. European Americans have converted what was a sustainable biological cornucopia for Native Americans to a damaged and dying ecosystem.

In Oregon, the Klamath Basin was once dominated by over 300,000 acres of natural wetlands including tule marshes and other waterfowl wetland habitats. Approximately 80% percent of that acreage has been lost in this century.

The large concentrations of waterfowl throughout the Klamath Basin provide a ready prey base for the largest wintering population of Bald Eagles in the contiguous 48 states. Along with ducks and geese, a minimum of 411 species of wildlife have been documented as occurring in the Klamath Basin. The drought of the previous six years, combined with the competing agricultural conflicts has resulted in precipitous declines in duck numbers in the Pacific Flyway and the Klamath Basin.

Two listed endangered fish, the Lost River and Shortnose Suckers, are found only in the Klamath Basin. In many ways, the suckers are indicator species for this marsh ecosystem, much as the Northern Spotted Owl is for Douglas-fir dominated old growth forest. Currently, the historical range and number of both species of fish have been reduced by more than 95% due to activities such as damming of waterways, draining of marshes, and diversions of rivers and streams.

Oregon's largest lake, Klamath Lake, is dying. For decades, we have used the lake as an agricultural sewer to collect the polluted runoff of the watershed. We have used this great lake as a water tank for farming. We have shrunk the lake by cutting off its marshes. We have abused the lake to the point that during certain periods of the summer and in certain parts of the lake, it is toxic to fish life—put live trout in that water and they die.

Sacred to the native peoples of the Klamath Basin, the annual spring runs of Shortnose and Lost River Suckers were the main protein source of the indigenous peoples. With white settlement of the Basin, and containment of the "Indian problem," railroad cars were loaded with suckers that were netted or harvested with pitchforks, and sent to the San Francisco Bay area. The population of reproductive age Shortnose Suckers has been reduced to an estimated 400 to 1,000 total remaining individuals in the Upper Klamath Lake System.

As the suckers go, so goes the Klamath Basin.

I don't know much about ecosystems, but I know people who do, and lawyers who sue. Things are out of balance in the Klamath Basin Ecosystem. Where illegal, these imbalances must be addressed immediately. Where legal, the law must be changed. Let me give you two examples of some of these imbalances:

• Last year Gerber Reservoir almost went dry, while the Bureau of Reclamation drained the east half of Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge, stranding a colony of White Pelicans and resulting in the otherwise unnecessary death of their young. They died seeking water from a spring beat out by grazing cattle located a mile away.

• Similarly, last season, Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge was provided only 7600 acre feet of water or approximately 42% of their minimal summer needs, while local irrigators received almost 300,000 acre feet of water--85% of their annual demands during the same time period.

Our lawsuits are the focus of a lot of criticism from certain quarters. Please understand that ONRC doesn't easily waltz into court and waltz out with an injunction. We can't sue just because we don't like something; that something has to be illegal under the law. When we sue a government agency, it is because that agency is violating the expressed will of the Congress of the United States. Environmentalists wouldn't win in court, if agencies were obeying the law.

Let me just lay out briefly the environmentalists' vision for the Klamath Basin, then some of the methods on how we are going to achieve it.

Environmentalists want:

• the Shortnosed and Lost River suckers recovered and removed from the endangered species list.

• salmon back in the Upper Klamath Basin.

• the bald eagle off the endangered species list.

• fair distribution of water in the basin for wildlife refuges and wildlife.

• end of old growth logging on federal forest lands

• end of livestock grazing on federal lands

• restoration of water quality and water quantity to maintain the Klamath Basin Ecosystem through the acquisition of 100-150 thousand acres for public purposes.

We will employ a combination of strategies to achieve these ends including, but not limited to:

• seeking reform of the Klamath Basin Project to balance fish and wildlife needs, such as was recently done for the Central Valley Project.

• seeking expansion of the Klamath Fisheries Restoration Act to include the Upper Basin.

• petitioning to list numerous other endangered and threatened fish and wildlife species, including but not limited to: Klamath River salmon and steelhead stocks, the western pond turtle, inland redband trout, large scale sucker, bull trout, etc.

• litigating over logging on federal forest lands.

• litigating over grazing on federal lands.

• advocating the removal of the Chiloquin Dam to restore sucker and trout passage to spawning habitat.

(By the way, another damnable dam, the Salt Caves Dam is dead; it just hasn't been buried yet. Expect to see Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt honor Governor Barbara Roberts' request to include the Upper Klamath State Scenic Waterway in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System by year's end.)

While ONRC believes that the irrigation, agriculture economy can be sustained, and even prosper in association with the Basin's wildlife, ONRC is committed to see that these endangered fish species, along with one of the greatest wildlife displays in California/Oregon and North America, are not sacrificed for the production of hay, potatoes and horseradish.

To aid ONRC's efforts to secure the restoration of the Klamath Basin Ecosystem, we are moving Wendell Wood from Eugene to Chiloquin. As ONRC's new South Central Field Coordinator, he'll oversee our efforts in the basin. The Klamath Basin is a major priority of ONRC.

Some of my colleagues may criticize me for having laid out the environmentalists' entire game plan to you. They fear farmers will organize to oppose us; that's it's best to just let sleeping dogs lie. My first response to them is that the Tule Lake Rotary asked me to tell them. The second is that farmers will organize anyway. Third, I tell them, in the end, it won't make any difference—time and demographics are on the side of environmentalists; if not the environment. I tell them that most people who believed the world is flat didn't change their minds; they died.

Farmers in the Klamath Basin are a crossroads. The wrong road is the path of fighting change. The right road is the one of accepting, and even embracing, change.

If I had to bet, I'd bet farmers will take the wrong one, and embark on a very hard journey down a very rough road until that road eventually leads you back to the right road.

Fighting change is ultimately futile. If not to you of this generation who own the land and hold the power, then certainly the next generation. Attempt to lock in your customs and practices and you die, or at least put the nail in your children's coffins.

The old growth timber industry fought change. See how well they have fared.

Because the timber industry, the Bush Administration and Forest Service didn't want to cut less timber they are now presently selling no timber. When sales resume, they will be a small fraction of what they once were. A smaller fraction than would have been the case had they acted responsibly and sooner.

Let me give you two examples of how rural people are resisting change and how in the end they will fail.

• The "property rights" ordinance that passed a while back in Klamath County. It seeks to have the county control activities on federal lands. In every county that it has passed, the county gets a stock letter from the US Department of Justice informing them of the US Constitution supremacy clause and warning not to interfere with federal officers carrying out their official duties. In each case, the elected sheriff has refused to enforce the ordinance; perhaps out of respect for the Constitution or at least a practical recognition that the federal government has all the nuclear weapons.

• Referenda sweeping eastern Oregon seeking "one-county, one-senator." Four of Oregon's thirty senators come from east of the Cascades, consistent with the fact that only 2/15 of Oregonians live there. There are 18 counties on each side of the Cascades. One eastern Oregon county has 1717 residents. One in western Oregon has 583,877 residents—340 times more. Counties are not to states as states are to the United States. They have no sovereignty, but are only political subdivisions for the convenience of the state.

Both these examples seek to deny reality. You can often deny reality for a while, but the price paid later is larger than if paid up front. Here are some realities that I'm sure many of you don't want to even hear, let alone acknowledge.

• Power is continuing, as it has for well over 100 years, to shift from the rural to the urban. Power I define as votes or money.

• This nation has more farmers than it needs, or can afford. Farm subsidies may have made sense at one time, but they do not today. Taxpayers are subsidizing farmers with money, with water, and with wildlife. History and tradition are not good enough reasons for farmers to stay bellied up to the public trough when we're stealing money from our grandchildren to pay for it. Farmers have to change as the rest of America changes.

I think part of the reason that farmers fear ONRC so much is that we represent change.

But as Bill Clinton said at the Forest Conference in Portland, "I cannot repeal the laws of change."

The world has changed and will change more. And because the people in the Klamath Basin haven't kept up with that change; because you've successfully resisted change for a while, your future is full of rapid and sometimes retching change.

Please note as I talk of all this change, that I am not valuing all this change as good change. Some change is not good, but often there are macro-economic and -social forces powerful enough to make the change, whether we like it or not. My point is that we all have to live with change.

Farming is changing, with or without environmentalists. To not recognize it is denial.

I heard a farmer joke the other day. I tell it not to be insulting, but to illuminate. (I also thought I'd throw it in to see how humor-impaired my audience is and to see my chances of leaving Siskiyou County alive.)

Here's the joke: Why do they only bury farmers six inches underground? Therefore, they can still get their handout.

What's significant about this joke is that it portrays farmers as just another special interest group, firmly wallowing in the public trough like defense contractors and their $400 hammers, and miners who pay no royalty on federal lands.

While farmers may still have a mystique about farmers, the American Public doesn't any longer. Now don't sit there and think that it's just that the American people don't understand; that if only they knew; that maybe a public relations campaign could bring them around.

It's not a public relations problem that farmers have; it is their relationship with the public that is the problem. The farmer's problem is not cosmetic, but systemic.

Most Americans don't know any farmers; their parents didn't farm and most likely their grandparents didn't either. Most Americans live in cities and think their food comes from Safeway; if they think about it at all.

They don't care that you think you work hard; that you value your independence or your lifestyle; that you don't want to change.

They work as hard and they don't get checks from the government for not doing something, as many farmers do. They don't get their water below cost, they don't have extension agents giving them free advice on how to conduct their business.

Change is more difficult for those remaining in rural areas I think, partly because of natural selection. Most of you have brothers and sisters who went off to the cities. Most of your aunts and uncles did, as did your great aunts and uncles. So those of you that are left are the products of several generations of resisting change. Therefore accepting change is all the more difficult.

I also believe that change is difficult for many in rural areas because of intolerance of views, values, people and lifestyles different than their own.

This intolerance can lead you to misunderstand your opponents, like me. Let me give you an example. I happen to believe that proper wildlife management is something different than running livestock everywhere they can get to or irrigating every possible field. I believe there is sound scientific evidence to support my view. But I've talked with several of you who sincerely believe that water and range management in the Klamath Basin, as now being practiced, is optimal for wildlife. They fervently hold that view because either they believe it or they have to believe it, because it fits comfortably in the worldview that they feel comfortable with.

Who's right or wrong is not significant to my immediate point. What is significant is that the holders of the view that wildlife could do no better than under the status quo are intolerant to another worldview that believes otherwise. I have found that because of this narrow-minded intolerance, that I am ascribed motives which are not mine.

These people strongly believe that my view is wrong and believe that any fool knows it. Since I don't come across as foolish, they conclude that I must have another agenda. For if I really cared about wildlife, I'd think like they do. Therefore, it must be some other reason. Since intolerant people also have paranoid tendencies, they reason that the environmentalists' true motive must be something else. What could it be? It can't be the wildlife! It must be that environmentalists are out to destroy the farmer's way of life; now that communism is out of fashion, the big leftist conspiracy has directed environmentalists to use the wildlife subterfuge to undermine all that is good on this Earth!

Well, I'll let you in on a secret. I really do believe what I believe. My motives are the sustainability of fish, wildlife, air, water, ecosystems and agriculture and for justice. It is not a sustainable or just system of agriculture in the Klamath Basin that produces crops that European Americans don't really need, at the expense of species important to Native Americans.

Environmentalists don't hate the farmer lifestyle; they are ambivalent about it.

My message in closing is this: Get used to environmentalists. They are a real factor that farmers have to deal with as surely as gravity and the price of money. Successful farmers will be the ones who adapt to change; not those who sit around and whine about environmentalists.

Agriculture is changing with or without environmentalists. It's either more big corporations or specialty crops that people really want. It's not a continuation of the status quo. The world has changed. Subsidies farmers have long received will be challenged in the political arena, as will many other subsidies from government. Don't rely on the fact that farmers have received subsidies so long that it's a tradition that must be sustained. Farmers will have to justify their existence in the 21st Century just like many other special interest groups.

My friend and Western writer, Terry Tempest Williams has stated that environmentalists must be "both fierce and compassionate. At once." If farmers recognize that societal values are changing, then environmentalists can work with farmers in a compassionate manner. But if farmers only recognize denial as a river in Egypt, then our conflicts will continue to multiply in fierceness. Environmentalists will be compassionate at a level equal with our fierceness, but only if farmers want to move forward, not simply go back to the past.

If environmentalists come across as uncompromising, it is because they believe the Klamath Basin Ecosystem has been compromised all that it can stand. If environmentalists compromise more, the result is extinction of species and the ecosystem itself.

Environmentalists may be hell to live with, but they make great ancestors.