But now, activists say, farmers in the
Klamath Basin appear poised to cement their
presence on the refuges, the basin's most
Farmers are gaining an edge in closed-door
settlement talks over the fate of four dams
on the Klamath River, which meanders across
two states before pouring into the Pacific
Ocean north of Eureka, Calif.
Environmentalists universally support dam
removal, which would let endangered salmon
reach upriver spawning grounds blocked for
nearly a century.
Activists with a pair of Oregon-based
groups, however, fear that a looming
compromise backed by the Bush administration
will come at an unacceptable cost: an
agreement to forever allow farming in the
The 23-page settlement proposes up to $250
million to ease soaring electricity costs
for irrigation pumps and possibly finance a
renewable energy plant.
Farmers and other big landowners could also
be shielded from endangered-species
restrictions invoked to revive imperiled
fish species: the salmon, two types of
suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake and the
bull trout, which is found in upstream
"The Bush administration has hijacked these
talks about dam removal to advance unrelated
policy goals bad for the environment and bad
in the long term for the Klamath Basin,"
said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, a Portland
At this point, that resolute stand is a
Other participants in the talks, including
several national environmental groups, say
it's too early to go to the mat over a deal
that's anything but done.
"If folks are talking about one thing or
another being sold out, we think that's very
premature," said Amy Kober of American
Rivers. "There's still plenty to be worked
The administration's top negotiator declined
to discuss details but rejected any notion
of pressure from Washington.
"I've had a free rein to do whatever I felt
was right," said Steve Thompson,
California-Nevada manager for the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service. "I haven't felt any
pressures, other than that Klamath is
controversial from all sides."
Forging a consensus on the Klamath has
proved extraordinarily complicated.
Compromises, experts say, will be inevitable
for the proposal to get federal and state
"It's a huge stretch to imagine that
commercial agriculture is benefiting
wildlife populations in the long run," said
Nancy Langston, a University of Wisconsin
environmental studies professor who has
studied the Klamath crisis. "But getting
buy-in from as many people in the basin as
possible is critical in the long run."
After more than two years of discussions, 26
of the 28 groups — U.S. water and wildlife
agencies, the states of California and
Oregon, fishermen, four tribes and an array
of environmental groups — have agreed to
push forward to settle details in the
Meanwhile, Oregon Wild and WaterWatch of
Oregon, the two groups vocally objecting to
what they describe as concessions to
farmers, have "essentially been voted off
the island," said John DeVoe, WaterWatch's
In addition to pushing for reduced water
demand in the basin and higher river flows,
the two groups ran aground in their quest to
protect the refuges — and lighten the
footprint of agriculture.
Change came in 1905, when the
precursor to the federal Bureau of
Reclamation began to drain marshlands
for homesteading farmers.
That same year, a pioneering
conservationist named William Finley
visited the basin and came away awed
by the abundant bird life and vast
wetlands. His reports helped persuade
President Theodore Roosevelt to
establish the first of the basin's
refuges in 1908.
In less than a decade, wildlife began
to suffer. Completion of a railroad
levee in 1917 cut off the biggest
refuge's marshy connection to the
Klamath River, and within five years a
vast expanse had dried up.
Early attempts to farm around the
refuges mostly flopped as wildfires
burned across parched peat soil.
But the federal Reclamation Service
pressed ahead, rerouting whole rivers
and building dams and canals. In the
1940s, it bored a mile-long tunnel
through Sheepy Ridge to help drain
Homesteaders settled in the basin,
most of them veterans of the two world
wars. They built communities and
successful agricultural enterprises in
a cold, dry land where the growing
season barely lasts more than three
As Tule Lake receded over the decades,
farmers fought to have the fertile
lake bottom opened for sale as farms.
In 1964, Congress barred homesteading
but allowed leased farmland on the
Today, nearly 15% of the 240,000 farm
acres in the Klamath Basin is leased
land on two federal wildlife refuges.
A quarter of the Lower Klamath Lake
refuge is farmed. At the Tule Lake
wildlife refuge, crops sprout on
nearly half the land, growing in the
rich soil of what used to be lake
"That's the heartland of the basin,"
said longtime farmer Sid Staunton, 50.
"To shut us out of the refuge would
wipe out Tule Lake."
Staunton and his brothers, Marshall
and Ed, have farmed the Klamath Basin
for decades, just as their father and
grandfather before them. They grow
potatoes, onions and barley, routinely
planting upward of 1,000 acres on the
Like other farmers, the brothers talk
of how agriculture's grains provide
feed to migratory birds, about how
they've changed their practices to
better accommodate wildlife.
They've gone heavily into organic
farming, spreading far less fertilizer
and pesticide, which can end up in
wetlands and rivers.
Meanwhile, crop rotation on the refuge
now means flooding farm parcels every
couple of years, which allows
marshland to sprout anew for a few
seasons before being returned to
Agribusiness enthusiastically supports
more water for the refuges, which have
been parched in recent droughts, said
Greg Addington, executive director of
the Klamath Water Users Assn., which
represents basin farmers.
Addington said reduced farming on the
refuges would be a regional economic
disaster, knocking out not just
growers but the infrastructure that
supports them — the seed merchants,
fertilizer and pesticide sales,
Staunton said Oregon environmentalists
don't want to hear such things — they
want all the farmers out.
"It's their ultimate goal," he said.
"If they can force the farmers to
bail, they can flood it all."
Environmentalists counter that
agribusiness has gotten its way too
long. The pendulum seemed to be
swinging back in favor of wildlife
during the last years of the Clinton
administration, which conducted a
formal review that might have
curtailed refuge farming. That
possibility faded after President Bush
The basin remains home to the largest
population of bald eagles in the lower
48 states as well as three of the
West's last surviving white pelican
breeding colonies. But scientists say
the annual migration to the Klamath,
which 50 years ago filled the sky with
7 million ducks and geese, has
decreased by more than two-thirds.
Environmentalists blame myriad
problems: farm equipment that can
destroy nests, silt from agricultural
runoff, pesticides. But mostly it's a
matter of farm fields replacing
wetlands. A federal study found that a
typical farm acre produces about 200
pounds of waste grain that birds can
eat, while a bountiful wetland acre
can yield 2,600 pounds of rootlets and
Pedery of Oregon Wild said restoration
of refuge wetlands could help Klamath
River salmon rebound, with marsh
plants filtering pollutants to improve
"It's irresponsible to treat these
refuges like trading stock," he said.
"It's land that was set aside for
geese and eagles, not potatoes and
Before the arrival of settlers in the
West, the Klamath Basin's wetlands
totaled nearly 360,000 acres, a mix of
shallow lakes and marshes under skies
filled with migratory birds. Besides
harboring wildlife, the marshes
naturally carried clean Cascade runoff
that emerged like a volcanic broth on
its way to the Klamath River.