The present day refuge/lease land complex in the Klamath Basin is the result of the 1964 Kuchel Act. It was considered a progressive concept that would benefit farmers, sportsmen, refuges and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). The Kuchel Act established the lease land management program requiring 75% of the leases to grow cereal grain crops. Twenty-five percent may be planted as row and/or soil building crops. Currently, slightly more than 22% of the lease lands are farmed in row crops on a rotational basis. The federal lease land program is a unique accumulation of farm ground, "dedicated to wildlife conservation, but with full consideration to optimum agricultural use that is consistent therewith". (Kuchel Act) Agricultural production consistent with wildlife management is the primary purpose of the program. Farming on the refuge has proven to be in compliance with the mandates of the Kuchel Act.

Established in 1928, the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 38,908 acres of mainly open water and cropland. Farmers under the program administered by BOR lease approximately 15,000 acres. Refuge personnel or a permit holder farm another 1,400 acres of cereal grain and alfalfa. These crops, together with the waste grain and potatoes, provide the major food supply for migrating and wintering waterfowl.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, was our nation’s first waterfowl refuge. The 50,064-acre refuge is a mixture of shallow marshes, open water, grassy uplands and cropland used by marsh birds and waterfowl. Water is intensively managed to provide nesting and brood rearing habitat for these birds. Natural wetland vegetation and grains from cooperative and lease land farmers also provide food for migrating and wintering waterfowl (US Fish & Wildlife Service pamphlet RF 11660).

Private grain fields bordering the refuge throughout the Lower Klamath valley are flooded each winter providing over 80,000 acres of seasonal wetlands. Minimal farming activity during the spring and fall migration allows migration to occur without interference. In 1997 refuge managers reported a return of over 3 million migratory birds, the largest waterfowl population in 40 years. Since that time refuge staff have continued to record substantially high numbers of returning birds.

State and Federal Environmental Protection Agencies regulate use of pesticides and the Food and Drug Administration test produce for residues. Agriculturists support and endorse the formal Integrated Pest Management process initiated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), BOR and University of California scientists and personnel. California has the strictest pesticide regulations in the nation with 611 compounds available for disease and pest control. Lease land farmers have only 63 compounds available for the same purpose, eliminating 90% of the California list. Pesticides have not contributed to declines in waterfowl populations. Test results of water samples collected from water flowing in and out of the refuges over a period of years have revealed no toxic level of pesticides.

Approximately eighty farmers participate in the lease land program with 62% being Oregon residents. They are predominately young family farmers that are proactive and technologically proficient. Eighty percent of current lease land farmers began farming the Kuchel Act lands before age 40 and sixty-five percent of the leaseholders are age 50 or younger. Many are third and fourth generation farmers, descendents of WWI veterans, with an affinity for the land and nature.

During the winter sealed lease bids are submitted to BOR to be awarded in February of the following year. The highest bidders are granted the right to farm their prospective leases for periods up to five years. Average lease lot size for Tule Lake is 100 acres and 140 acres in Lower Klamath. Competition during ‘good’ years is intense, while a low crop price year will result in lower rent bids. This process allows for maximizing lease revenues stipulated in the Kuchel Act. Total annual lease revenues ranges from 1.3 million to 2.2 million dollars. Lease land farming is crucial for survival of the local community, contributing significantly to the economic base. The BOR collects nearly $2,000,000 annually in lease revenue. Klamath, Siskiyou and Modoc counties receive 25% of net revenue in lieu of taxes each year. In addition, lease land farmers pay approximately $39.00 per acre for operation and maintenance of Tulelake Irrigation District (TID). In turn, TID provides family wage jobs for local residents.

Proper management and reasonable use of public lands are the basis for sound environmental policy. Klamath Basin farmers/ranchers have taken a proactive approach to co-existing with abundant wildlife resources while maintaining a sustainable agricultural economy. National wildlife refuges intertwined with our farms and ranches will be managed to insure a healthy ecosystem now and in the future. If our goal is to provide both food production and wildlife protection, then farming refuge lease lands is the perfect example.

Deb Crisp, Executive Director

Tulelake Growers Association


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