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A search for solutions

Jim Root, a board member of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust, is one of the people coordinating a series of informal, private meetings among stakeholders in the ongoing Klamath water and land issue. Root, who is from Medford, owns a 600-acre ranch in the Wood River Valley.

Published Jan. 16, 2004


For the last three months, Jim Root and Kurt Thomas have been joining the search for a solution to water and land issues in the Klamath Basin.

Although neither man lives in the Basin, the two have been renting meeting space, setting the table and buying lunches for about 18 stakeholders involved with informal meetings at the Klamath Falls Shilo Inn. The next meeting, which is closed to the press and public, is set for Monday.

The group includes members of the Klamath Tribes and irrigators from above and below Upper Klamath Lake - and Thomas and Root, who are both board members of the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust.

Many group members are people the two met while working on the Rangeland Trust, a non-profit conservation group Root and Thomas formed two years ago to acquire federal funds to pay ranchers in the Wood River Valley to not irrigate.

At the last two meetings in December, protesters gathered outside the Shilo, with many holding signs that read "KBRT doesn't represent us."

Root agrees with that opinion.

"That's right, the KBRT doesn't represent them," Root says.

Although Thomas and Root are board members in the Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust, they say the informal meetings are not affiliated with the trust. They are coordinating the meetings as a separate project, the two say.

Root says the summer of 2001, when most of the Klamath Reclamation Project was shut down for lack of water, was a wakeup call for him and Root to get involved in the Basin's issues.

Their first step was creating the Rangeland Trust, and now they're using the informal meetings to help shape the Basin's future.

Shared hope from different sides of the mountain

Root and Thomas are putting sandwiches on the table at the informal meetings in hopes of easing tensions over water issues.

Both have money, education and influence.

Although they land around the old Klamath Agency compound, neither are permanent residents of the area.

Root lives in his hometown of Medford. Thomas, raised in Tulelake, spends most of his time near Bakersfield, Calif. Root runs a multi-national fruit business in Medford. Thomas has rice paddies, pastureland and a real estate venture in California.

Thomas, 57, was born in Idaho and moved to the Tulelake area when he was in grade school. After graduating from Tulelake High School he earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture economics from the University of California-Davis in 1968.

He earned a master's degree at Harvard's business graduate school in 1971.

Thomas returned to the West and farmed with his father near Dorris.

Thomas' cabin near Klamath Agency looks out on the pasture land where a couple of thousand head of cattle spend the summer. Thomas says the ranch he bought in 1981 is his favorite place in the world.

"The fact that I live in Bakersfield doesn't detract from my roots and my love for the Basin," Thomas says.

Robert Fensler, who grew up with Thomas in Tulelake, says Thomas used to come back fairly often to go duck hunting and catch up with the old gang.

While Thomas eventually left Tulelake, Fensler, who works for Tulelake Irrigation District, has stayed in the area.

Back in high school the two played sports together and were good buddies.

Thomas is "pretty sharp," - he went to Harvard and all, Fensler says.

Fensler says he played basketball with Thomas, and the two "always razzed each other about who was the best shot."

Although he doesn't see Thomas as much as he used to, Fensler says he hasn't changed much.

"He is still Kurt to me," he says. "He's always been a good friend."

A fruit empire

Root grew up outside of the Basin. He bought land near Fort Klamath in 1996.

He says the fact that he doesn't live in the Basin shouldn't be used to discredit his concern for local issues.

"I can't change who I am. I think as people get to know me, they'll find I'm an Oregonian, just like they are, and my interests and pure and true," he says. "I really want to see the Basin find a solution."

Root's financial and political leverage in maneuvering for a solution to the Basin's problems stem from the fruit of the Rogue Valley.

The Root family has been all about fruit for generations. Root's grandfather, Myron Root, owned an orchard and founded Myron Root and Co. in 1905. Over the generations the company has evolved into Sabroso Co., which also produces purees, concentrates, smoothies and other fruit products.

Root earned a bachelor's degree in food science and technology from Oregon State University in 1969, and a master's in international business from the University of Oregon in 1971. About 20 years ago, Root bought out other relatives to become the main owner of Sabroso.

Nowadays, the fruit comes in and goes out to all corners of the globe. The company does business in about 40 countries, from South America to China.

"If there is an opportunity, we go for it," Root says.

China is one of the major places the company sees opportunity. Root says the company has been doing business there since 1985 and he has an office in Beijing.

Because of the seasonal nature of the fruit business and a workforce on several continents, Root says it is hard to count how many people are employed by the company worldwide.

In Medford, the company has about 110 year-round employees, but the number spikes to about 250 at the peak of fruit season.

The company's success, he says, comes from the ability of the people who work for him.

"It's not so much business skills. It's just that I have had a lot of experience with helping people realize their goals," he says.

Brant Rigby, Sabroso's vice president in charge of human resources, says Root has many talents and interests.

"He is also good at expressing himself well and can communicate with everyone from executives to starting people," he says.

Root speaks a bit of Spanish and uses the language to connect to workers in the fields and in other countries, he says. Rigby and Root have worked together for close to a decade, and Root has a knack for getting people to work together despite their differences.

"He's got a good way of describing how if everyone works together it can benefit everyone," Rigby says.

After seeing Root's skills work in Medford, Rigby says he thinks they can work in the Basin. Rigby has been over to Root's land near Fort Klamath and helped him restore the banks of the creek running through his property.

"I know he thinks there is a solution out there that will be a benefit to everyone and that is what he is shooting toward," Rigby says. "And if there is anyone to do it is him."

Saviors or menaces

Depending whom you talk to, Root and Thomas are either saviors or menaces for efforts to come to a solution in the Klamath water issues.

Ed Bartel, president of the Sprague River Water Users Association, has been a vocal opponent of the Rangeland Trust and the informal meetings the two have been bankrolling.

"They basically want to dry up the Wood River Valley," Bartel says.

He says the two are water marketers who want to buy farmers and ranchers out of their water.

Bartel has been one of the protesters outside of the Shilo Inn. He is a part of the Basin Alliance to Save the Winema and Fremont Forests, a group of people concerned about the informal meetings.

Inside the meetings, others say Root and Thomas have shown their savvy.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association and one of the stakeholders who come to the meetings, say Root and Thomas are businessmen who know how to run a meeting.

"They know how to get things done," he says.

The two have used the ties they created in the Rangeland Trust, Keppen says, to bring the different sides of the Klamath water issue to the table at the informal meetings.

Reporter Dylan Darling covers natural resources. He can be reached at 885-4471, (800) 275-0982, or by e-mail at ddarling@heraldandnews.com


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