Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Fighting for Our Right to Irrigate Our Farms and Caretake Our Natural Resources

    Rural Cleansing

Wall Street Journal - Rural Cleansing 7/26/01

  Rural Cleansing
  By Kimberley A. Strassel.

Ms. Strassel is an assistant 
editorial features editor at the Journal. 

Federal authorities were forced to cut off water to 1,500 farms in Oregon's  and California's Klamath Basin in April because of the "endangered" sucker  fish. The environmental groups behind the cutoff continue to declare that  they are simply concerned for the welfare of a bottom-feeder. But last  month, those environmentalists revealed another motive when they submitted a polished proposal for the government to buy out the farmers and move them off their land.

  This is what's really happening in Klamath -- call it rural cleansing -- and  it's repeating itself in environmental battles across the country. Indeed,  the goal of many environmental groups -- from the Sierra Club to the Oregon  Natural Resources Council (ONRC) -- is no longer to protect nature. It's to  expunge humans from the countryside.

  The Greens' Strategy

  The strategy of these environmental groups is nearly always the same: to sue  or lobby the government into declaring rural areas off-limits to people who  live and work there. The tools for doing this include the Endangered Species  Act and local preservation laws, most of which are so loosely crafted as to allow a wide leeway in their implementation.

  In some cases owners lose their property outright. More often, the environmentalists' goal is to have restrictions placed on the land that  either render it unusable or persuade owners to leave of their own accord. 

  The Klamath Basin saga began back in 1988, when two species of suckers from  the area were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Things worked  reasonably well for the first few years after the suckers were listed. The Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the area's irrigation, took direction from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and tried to balance the needs of both fish and farmers. This included programs to promote water conservation and tight control over water flows. The situation was tense, but workable.

  But in 1991 the Klamath basin suffered a drought, and Fish and Wildlife  noted that the Bureau of Reclamation might need to do more for the fish.  That was the environmentalists' cue. Within two months, the ONRC -- the pit  bull of Oregon's environmental groups -- was announcing intentions to sue  the Bureau of Reclamation for failure to protect the fish.

  The group's lawsuits weren't immediately successful, in part because Fish  and Wildlife continued to revise its opinions as to what the fish needed,  and in part because of the farmers' undeniable water rights, established in  1907. But the ONRC kept at it and finally found a sympathetic ear. This  spring, a federal judge -- in deciding yet another lawsuit brought by the  ONRC, other environmental groups, fishermen and Indian tribes -- ordered an unwilling Interior Department to shut the water off. The ONRC had succeeded  in denying farmers the ability to make a living.

  Since that decision, the average value of an acre of farm property in Klamath has dropped from $2,500 to about $35. Most owners have no other source of income. And so with the region suitably desperate, the enviros dropped their bomb. Last month, they submitted a proposal urging the government to buy the farmers off.

  The council has suggested a price of $4,000 an acre, which makes it more likely owners will sell only to the government. While the amount is more than the property's original value, it's nowhere near enough to compensate people for the loss of their livelihoods and their children's futures.

  The ONRC has picked its fight specifically with the farmers, but its actions will likely mean the death of an entire community. The farming industrywill lose $250 million this year. But property-tax revenues will also decrease under new property assessments. That will strangle road and municipal  projects. Local businesses are dependent on the farmers and are now suffering financially. Should the farm acreage be cleared of people  entirely, meaning no taxes and no shoppers, the community is likely to disappear.

  Nor has the environment won, even at this enormous cost. The fish in the lake may have water, but nothing else does. On the 200,000 acres of parched  farmland, animals belonging to dozens of species -- rabbits, deer, ducks,  even bald eagles -- are either dead or off searching for water. And there's no evidence the suckers are improving. Indeed, Fish and Wildlife's most  recent biological opinions, which concluded that the fish needed more water,  have been vociferously questioned by independent biologists. Federal  officials are now releasing some water (about 16% of the normal flow) into  the irrigation canals, but it doesn't help the farmers or wildlife much this  year.

  Environmentalists argue that farmers should never have been in the "dry"  Klamath valley in the first place and that they put undue stress on the  land. But the West is a primarily arid region; its history is one of turning  inhospitable areas into thriving communities through prudent and thoughtful  reallocation of water. If the Klamath farmers should be moved, why not the  residents of San Diego and Los Angeles, not to mention the Southwest and  parts of Montana and Wyoming? All of these communities survive because of  irrigation -- water that could conceivably go to some other  "environmental"  use.

  But, of course, this is the goal. Environmental groups have spoken openly of  their desire to concentrate people into cities, turning everything outside  city limits into a giant park. A journalist for the Rocky Mountain News  recently noted that in June the Sierra Club posted on its Web site a claim  that "efficient" urban density is about 500 households an acre. This, in case you're wondering, is about three times the density of Manhattan's most tightly packed areas. And it's not as if there were any shortage of open space in the West. The federal government already owns 58% of the western U.S., with state and local government holdings bumping the public percentage even higher.

  Balanced Stewardship

Do the people who give money to environmental groups realize the endgame is to evict people from their land? I doubt it. The American dream has always  been to own a bit of property on which to pursue happiness. This dream  involves some compromises, including a good, balanced stewardship of  nature -- much like what was happening in Klamath before the ONRC arrived.  But this dream will disappear -- as it already is in Oregon and  California -- if environmental groups and complicit government agencies are allowed to continue their rural cleansing.



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