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If Shilo talks falter, talks must go on


Published March 14, 2004

The not-so-secret talks at the Shilo appear to be in trouble.

Inside, the participants haven't yet been able to agree on the complicated task of divvying up the Basin's water.

Outside, there's strong opposition to one key to a resolution, the return of national forest land to the Klamath Tribes for a reservation, and opposition from water users above Upper Klamath Lake.

The secrecy has proved troubling to both participants and the public.

The conveners, Jim Root of Medford and Kurt Thomas of Bakersfield, a Tulelake native, have taken hits, most recently in the government report that said their Klamath Basin Rangeland Trust overestimated the benefit of idling pastureland above Upper Klamath Lake in 2002.

The main elements of a deal have long been apparent. In exchange for guaranteed water supplies, Basin irrigators would idle some land and give tacit or other support to the Tribes, who would "forebear" from enforcing a share of their water rights.

The federal government would apply the salve of money. The number bandied about is $200 million-plus for habitat restoration and other work.

But turning these elements into something people could shake hands over is an enormous task. The promise of the Root-Thomas talks was that their political connections to the Bush administration would provide the clout for local interests and cover for the Congress and the White House.

In other words, if we here in the Basin can agree on things, the government would make them happen.

That's still the imperative: Unless we can agree here, nobody from the outside is going to settle things. Even with a local agreement, the Basin is so divided that a settlement might not stick.

But solutions imposed from outside are certain to fail, or take so long as to guarantee failure.

Uncertain water supplies and years of lawyers' fees will eat away at the financial foundation of Basin agriculture. Nobody will lend money to farmers who can't be sure of water.

The Tribes can't get land back without the support of enough whites to make a land-return bill anything other than political suicide for the Oregon members of Congress, without whose support the bill could not pass no matter which party runs the Capitol and White House.

Environmentalists cannot ensure the survival of endangered fish unless there's a significant effort to create and restore habitat, which only the federal government can afford.

If the Shilo talks falter, the parties should find ways to stay in touch, to keep talking, to open up the process to the public and to interests both above Upper Klamath Lake and below Iron Gate Dam.

On that last point, the inauguration of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was promising. He's oriented toward resolving difficult problems, and his administration won't be scapegoating Basin farmers.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski signaled early on that he wants to be a leader about the Basin rather than a partisan, as his predecessor was. Both governors have had representatives in the Basin recently, and both could prove helpful.

If it's too early to write off the Shilo talks, fine. But the news and the talk hasn't been encouraging. It may be time to look for a new way out.

The "H&N view" represents the opinion of the newspaper's editorial board, which consists of Publisher John Walker, Editor Tim Fought, City Editor Todd Kepple and Opinion Editor Pat Bushey.





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