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Everglades of the West?

Environmentalists' vision for the Klamath Basin could spell economic ruin

By Lance Waldren, Pioneer Press  September 12, 2007

KLAMATH BASIN - It's no secret that radical environmental groups have an agenda to remove irrigated agriculture in the Klamath Basin and turn it into federally owned wetlands.

But their actions have been incremental and, like watching a car rust, you might hardly notice its impact until it's too late. Now, it's time that folks in the Basin paid attention to the collective efforts of the environmentalists.

According to Andy Kerr, an environmentalist and self-proclaimed senior counsel for Portland-based Oregon Wild, formerly the Oregon Natural Resource Council, some 100,000 to 150,000 acres are now being targeted by the group. Essentially, they feel the demand on the water in the Klamath River System is too great, that irrigation in the Basin has demanded the bulk of the water and that the demand has menaced wildlife, coastal communities and Indian tribes.

They figure that if the acres are turned into wetlands, there will be more water available down river.

It's an argument that has raged for years, only now, the group is ramping up efforts to support continued federal buyouts of farms and ranches in the area, along with all water rights.

Kerr said the group will petition to list as endangered and threatened many more fish and wildlife. They hope that those listings will result in litigation. Lawsuits over logging, grazing, water and dams already stymie further agricultural growth in the Basin.

But some scientists argue it isn't agriculture at all that menaces wildlife and contributes to the bulk of water loss in the Basin, but poorly managed wetlands.

According to Ken Rykbost, former head of Oregon State University's Klamath Research Station, water loss from wetland evaporation alone far exceeds the amount of water used by irrigated crops. The result of every acre turned into permanent wetland would actually reduce the amount of water going to the river, he said.

He said the problem with long-term, stable and stagnant wetlands is that decomposition of bulrush, tulles and other vegetation cause massive nutrient loading in the water. But that problem has historically been blamed on the farmer. It's likely only to get worse for farmers if they don't speak out.

Consider what has already happened north of Klamath Lake. Barnes Ranch was sold to the Bureau of Reclamation with the intention of converting the productive pasture land to shallow water storage, i.e., wetlands. Wood River Ranch sold to the Bureau of Land Management. The Williamson River Ranch sold to the Nature Conservancy. And the list of farmers and ranchers selling out is growing.

The impact of these sales could devastate the Basin economy. Reg LeQuieu, Klamath County Tax Assessor, said that over 60 percent of the county is now owned by the federal government. And that means that land which once produced jobs and money now produces nothing. It goes untaxed.

"The Federal Government is buying farm land a piece at a time," he said. "There is no comprehensive plan and the county loses out."

For example, the Wood River Ranch was sold to the Bureau of Land Management. The Bureau agreed to sell enough of its land back to private ownership to make up for the loss of revenue. There were several environmental groups who also signed off on the agreement. But since the sale in 2000, the Bureau has attempted to sell several pieces of prime property and have been blocked by the same environmental groups who signed off on the original deal. The only sales able to go through are for "Class 7" rangeland, which is typically sagebrush and scab rock -- hardly prime land and so undesirable that it brings to the county just $25 per acre.

Before it sold, Barnes Ranch was taxed at a rate of approximately $500 per acre. It generated some $8,000 a year for the county. But now, the scrub ground sold brings approximately $400 total. That's a net loss to the county of $7,600. In the grand scheme of things, $7,600 is not a lot of money, but it was money that would have gone to schools or public safety and it was the only one sale.

The Bureau has since argued that they've sold an equal acreage of land and that they've fulfilled their obligation. And equal acreage, sure, but not even close to equal quality.

"The BLM would have had to have sold about 200,000 acres of Class 7 Rangeland in order to make up for the lost revenue," LeQuieu said.

Willy Riggs, an agriculture economist with OSU's Research and Extension Service, said that $205 million is generated by Klamath County agriculture. Every dollar is turned over at least twice in the community. That's $410 million. But that money will dwindle for every acre sold to the Bureau and left untaxed. And then there's what Riggs calls the "intrinsic value" of agriculture to the social fabric of the Basin community. Studies have shown that a large majority of volunteers in the community come from the agricultural community, volunteers such as medical emergency technicians, fire fighters, Little League coaches and Boy Scout leaders. If the environmentalist continue to get their way, the Basin could not only loose its income, but its very soul. Kerr argues that the Klamath Basin is the largest fresh water wetland west of the Mississippi. He calls it the Everglades of the West. But if Kerr and his kind get their way, it might be a wetland, but it'll become an economic wasteland.

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