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Managers, farmers attempt to balance wildlife and harvests at Tule Lake refuge

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

TULE LAKE, Calif. -- Potato harvesters are kicking up clouds of dust in the bottomlands of the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge while white pelicans drift over nearby marshes.

Driving along a levee in his pickup, farmer Marshall Staunton stops beside fields of brown wheat stubble and upturned tubers.

"This was all under water two years ago, full of bulrushes and waterfowl," he says. But last year, the refuge drained the wetland, and Staunton farmed the exposed earth.

"We got a great crop," he says.

After a few years, the refuge will flood the land again. The ducks and marsh plants will return. Then the refuge will drain it once again, and the farmers will return. So the cycle goes.

Refuge managers see the rotation between wetland and cropland as a chance to improve the outlook for both wildlife and agriculture -- not only in this wildlife refuge but also in the rest of the Klamath Basin and possibly elsewhere in the country.

"I like to think that what we are doing here is sound stewardship, one that will carry this basin and maybe some other basins to a much longer life," says Ron Cole, Tule Lake refuge manager.

Cole wants to expand the "walking wetland" program from a few experimental plots to cover much of the 39,000 acres in the refuge.

The practice is a rare bright spot in the Klamath Basin, where conflict is as regular as the turning of the seasons. Agriculture and development have taken about 75 percent of the basin's wetlands, leaving farmers, tribes and endangered fish to compete for limited water.

Audubon Oregon and Waterwatch, an environmental group that advocates phasing out farming altogether on Tule Lake, support the rotation.

"The walking wetland program is a good program, and it shows how productive reconstructed wetlands can be," says Bob Hunter, staff attorney with Waterwatch in Medford.

Founded in 1928, the Tule Lake refuge sits in a semi-arid punch bowl just south of the Oregon-California border.

It's one of the six refuges in the Klamath Basin that lie in a geographic bottleneck along the Pacific Flyway. Every fall, 80 percent of the birds heading south from Alaska to warmer climates pass through the river basin.

At Tule Lake, the water surface is thick with battalions of black American coots. Mallard and pintail ducks seek cover in the reed beds. Seen from a migratory bird's-eye view, the refuge looks like a checkerboard of brown and green cropland.

Almost half of the refuge's acreage is dedicated to commercial agriculture, while only 8 percent is marsh. Uplands and open water make up the rest.

The refuge here -- as does the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge -- leases acreage to private farmers under a 1964 law that sought to balance the demands of farming and wildlife in the basin.

"It was a law that said, 'You're going to have agriculture, and you're going to have wildlife. Now get along,' " Cole says. "And for a long time, they didn't."

When the law was passed, several million ducks and geese visited Tule Lake. In recent years, those figures have declined to about 400,000, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figures show.

The Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based group, recently listed the entire complex of Klamath Basin marshes as among the nation's most endangered.

At the same time, agricultural land on the refuge has declined in quality. Decades of planting and harvesting depleted organic matter in the soil, requiring more fertilizer. Pests such as nematodes, which cover potato skins with tiny pimples, became endemic.

In the early 1990s, refuge managers began experimenting with flooding agricultural lands and discovered that long-dormant marsh plants recovered within one year, Cole says. Then in 1999, the refuge drained an experimental wetland and leased the field to private farmers.

The plot was known as Lot 5. Farmers had joked the site would drop 6 inches if you took all the bugs out of the soil. It had been under water for two years when Marshall Staunton and his two brothers entered the winning bid to farm its 90 acres.

What they found surprised nearly everyone: After it was drained, Lot 5 held black, sweet-smelling soil relatively free of pests and pathogens.

Basin potato crops average about 24 tons an acre. But that fall, Staunton harvested 29 tons per acre of worm-free potatoes from the plot. Plus, because the pests were gone, he saved about $200 an acre on fumigants and other chemicals, he says.

Eventually, word of the Stauntons' success got around. Minor bidding wars erupted to win the leases of other newly drained wetland plots. This year, farmers bid an average of 75 percent more, or a total of $160 an acre, for formerly flooded land compared with non-wetland acres.

At the same time, ducks and geese have begun taking advantage of the temporary wetlands. Pintail ducks have increased more than threefold since 1997 and green-winged teals more than fivefold in the same period, in part because of the wetland-rotation program, refuge managers say.

"For some species of waterfowl, we're seeing numbers we haven't seen in a quarter of a century," Cole says.

Now about 3,000 acres of refuge land are in different stages of wetland/cropland rotation, but eventually Cole hopes to have 18,000 acres in the mix.

The program is part of a massive plan to re-engineer the refuge by draining some portions of the lake and flooding other long-dry areas to better mimic the historic range of habitats at Tule Lake, he says.

Though still somewhat experimental, it's showing good results for farmers and the refuge, Cole says. "If this isn't a good way to manage an ecosystem, we'll find out soon enough," he says. "But one thing I do know: It's better than what we were doing."

Cole and others at the refuge hope to see farmers eventually adopt a wetland rotation on their own land just as they might a cropland rotation. The process could be adapted to other areas -- the Willamette Valley, for example, or even the Mississippi Delta.

"It's one of these tools where everyone can come out better than they went into it, and that's what you're looking for. You're not looking for winners and losers," says Steve Kandra, a Tulelake farmer and president of the Klamath Water Users Association.

But the ecological benefits of the walking wetlands are less certain.

For instance, a system of temporary wetlands probably won't have near the biological diversity of established wetlands, says Mary Santelmann, a research scientist at Oregon State University who focuses on wetlands and ecosystem ecology.

Put simply, when the wetlands "walk," many species such as amphibians can't follow. Other species, such as sandhill cranes, return to their same nesting spots year after year and may not react well to a shifting mosaic of habitats.

Once the fields are drained again, "you could create ecological traps for some species that aren't particularly mobile," Santelmann says.

She also says the program may not work in other places, such as Iowa, where farming is more established and marsh germination slower.

But in the Klamath Basin, the walking wetlands may ease some of the strains on the basin's water, soil and people. Staunton is one of the farmers looking for ways to export the program to private lands.

Out of his pickup and standing in the neat potato rows, Staunton sniffs the damp soil and inspects some pest-free russets in the back of a harvester.

"This basin seems to get more than its share of crisis, confusion and conflict," he says. But "these are good potatoes, a good crop."

Matthew Preusch: 541-382-2006; preusch@bendbroadband.com

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