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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Growing crops and ducks
Integrating wetlands into commercial crop rotation in the basin

By Lance Waldren, Pioneer Press August 15, 2007 

Pioneer Press photo by Lance Waldren After only a few years, wetlands with a stable water level become filled with bulrush and tules causing them to lose their effectiveness as wildlife habitat.

KLAMATH BASIN - Millions of migratory birds use the Klamath Basin as one of the main stops on the Pacific Flyway. This is one of the many reasons that make this area so special. Stand outside on an early morning in the spring and watch as hundreds of thousands of geese leave the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Refuge to descend on the fields of the Basin.

The Klamath Basin has some of the most fertile crop land in the nation and it is this land that the birds devour before traveling north. But the feast they enjoy every morning comes at a price. According to Tulelake farmer, Steve Kandra, the spring migration costs him approximately one ton of yield per acre on his alfalfa fields.

Finding a way for the birds and farmers to not only co-exist but for both to thrive is a big order. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the lower basin has come up with some innovative and productive solutions in which both birds and farmers prosper.

The Tule lake and Lower Klamath Refuges were established in 1928. They are now guided by legislation adopted in 1964, the Kuchel Act. This controversial legislation mandated a coexistence of wetland wildlife habitat and commercial agriculture, a combination of purposes that is unique within the National Wildlife Refuge System. The refuges were to maintain wetland wildlife habitat while simultaneously maintaining a 22,000 acre lease land farming program.

According to refuge managers, after decades of stabilized water levels and sedimentation, the productivity and diversity of the wetlands declined. Continuous farming had also increased the need for expensive crop inputs, such as fertilizer and chemicals, to maintain yields. In the early 1990's, the Fish and Wildlife realized new strategies were needed to manage these land uses.

"Stability is the death of a marsh," Refuge Manager Ron Cole, told the Pioneer Press. "They become bulrush and cattail jungles, which are sterile and are no longer productive"

The refuge began a small pilot program in which they began drying up portions of the "bulrush jungles" and converting them into farmland. In turn they would flood the same amount of farm ground and turn it back in wetlands. They named the program "walking wetlands" and the name is now becoming a part of conventional agricultural practices.

What they found was exciting for both the farmers and refuge managers. The farm land quickly reseeded itself with marsh grasses and within the year became very productive wetlands again. The wetlands which were farmed, produced huge crops without the use of fertilizers or chemicals.

The refuge has since expanded this program with amazing success.

"When they first drained Tule lake, the farmers were shocked at the size of the crops," said Sid Staunton, Tulelake farmer. "With the walking wetland program we have lowered our crop input (fertilizer and chemical use) and increased our yield while providing habitat for wildlife."

Staunton and his two brothers farm ground around the refuges and participate in the refuge lease land program. The Staunton family is part of the original Tulelake homesteaders and began farming here in 1929.

The Stauntons have been so impressed with the program they have converted 93 acres of their private land into rotating wetlands with 143 acres going in next year.

With a two year rotation as a wetland the ground is clean and certifiable as organic. There is also a 40 percent increase in nutrients and it is weed free. The farmers have also seen as much as a 95 percent control of diseases such as white rot in onions. The white rot gets in the ground and onions can no longer be grown there.

The walking wetland program also provides a more diverse habitat for many other species of wildlife.

"Since we started this program we have seen as many as 30 new species of protected shore birds in the refuge. I have been here for 18 years and have not seen these birds on the refuge before," said Dave Mauser, USFWS Biologist. "The program is the greatest thing since sliced bread for the wildlife."

Since the start of this project, 5,500 acres are now part of the walking wetlands program. 2,000 acres are on the refuge and 3,500 acres of wetlands are now scattered around the basin on private ground.

According to refuge manager Ron Cole, they are working in a cooperative partnership with groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Oregon Audubon, California Waterfowl Association, Irrigation Districts, Universities, Klamath Water Users and several other federal agencies. We are making huge progress instead of drawing lines, Cole told the Pioneer Press.

When you take an all or nothing approach you only end up in court. I am excited when a basin farmer comes here and wants to put in private wetlands. These are good biological decisions, he said.

"The refuge is a large part of the Klamath Water Project," said Greg Additngton, Klamath Water Users Association. "The lease lands surrounding the refuge provide a buffer between people and the wildlife and if you want something to grow, whether potatoes, onions or ducks, let a farmer do it. It's what they do."

Wetlands and agricultural lands can be integrated in ways that maintain ecological integrity as well as the economic well being and sustainability of surrounding rural communities.

Benefits of such a program could extend far beyond the Refuge and the Klamath Basin.

Pioneer Press photo by Lance Waldren Refuge manager Ron Cole speaks to a group of Skagit Valley farmers and members of the Nature Conservancy during a tour of the walking wetlands.

A group of farmers from the Skagit Valley recently traveled to the Tulelake Wildlife refuge to tour the program. The group was organized and led by Kevin Morris of the Nature Conservancy in Washington State.

Morris is excited about the program and is looking at cooperative ways to promote sustainable agriculture and increase wetland habitat for wildlife in their area.

Because We Live Here - The value of a compromise

By Lance Waldren Pioneer Press August 15, 2007

There are two sides to every story. There are also two ways of dealing with confrontational issues. The first is to draw your line in the sand and stand your ground. It doesn't matter what the other side says or does, your not listening and your not going to budge.

Sometimes this works and is the only way you can live with the consequences. The all or nothing mentality.

The other way is to try and understand what the other party really wants or needs. Next stepping back and looking at the real differences. Sometimes both goals can be achieved without selling out your side. A simple give and take can usually settle the dispute if both parties are willing to be opened minded and work towards a solution. The compromise.

I have seen both sides of this while trying to cover some of the issues confronting the Klamath Basin. I have seen traditional adversaries working hard to confront real problems and come up with real solutions. I have also seen the more traditional approach of all or nothing. Certain groups that have drawn their lines in the sand and are no longer concerned about anything but getting their way.

When it comes to issues such as removing dams, water for farmers or agriculture on refuges, the all or nothing approach does not work. It only ends in a court battle were nothing is ever solved.

I have had the opportunity to interview and spend some time with people in the basin who are actually making a difference. I would like to congratulate both Ron Cole and Dave Mauser of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These two men are working in the reality of, this is the situation and how can I make it better.

By taking this approach they have not only increased the habitat and numbers of species using the refuge but have developed a program, farmers and conservation groups from all over are coming to take a look at.

Take a drive through the refuge and look at the exciting things taking place there. You will see flocks of birds, sand hill cranes, pelicans, deer in the alfalfa fields. A huge abundance of wildlife. You will also see a thriving agricultural industry. The industry that keeps the communities in the basin healthy and strong.

When you have finished your drive, stop at the Fish and Wildlife headquarters and thank these men for deciding to be innovative and compromising for what is best for the animals and the communities.


A natural state

Environmental groups push for all agriculture to be removed

by Lance Waldren, Pioneer Press, Fort Jones, CA  530-468-5355 mailto:pioneerp@sisqtel.net  August 15, 2007

KLAMATH BASIN - No one will argue that the Klamath Basin and its refuges, plays a large role in the Pacific Flyway and the large migration of birds through our area every spring and fall. What they will argue about is the best way to provide habitat and feed for these huge flocks.

The Pioneer Press spoke with several environmental groups who have a different vision for what is going on in and around the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Refuges.

Oregon Wild and WaterWatch are pushing for all agriculture to be removed from the Basin Refuges.

"These are not wildlife refuges, they are farms, leveled and diked," said Bob Hunter, Staff Attorney for WaterWatch. "On no other public lands will you see commercial farms." Both groups agree that the walking wetlands program instituted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is very positive. They also say Ron Cole, the refuge manager, is doing the best he can in a bad situation.

"We are pleased to see the numbers of birds increasing but it is a nickel and dime approach to the problem," said Steve Pedery, Conservation Director of Oregon Wild. Pedery went on to say in addition to wanting to see the refuges returned to their natural state, they want the water demand of the Klamath Basin reduced and the water used for the refuges and the river.

"We are not calling for an end of all basin agriculture, just sustainability for all of the users. We need to buy back some of the promises made to the farmers and start to retire lease land and return it to the wildlife," said Pedery.

Pedery said by returning all of the refuge to wetlands you would not only increase habitat but also increase the water storage capacity in the basin. He said if having commercial agriculture on a wildlife refuge is such a good idea, why aren't other refuges doing it. He wants to see the public land freed up so Fish and Wildlife biologists can do what is best for the animals.

"Ron Coles opinion on how to manage the refuge would change if we had a different president," said Pedery. There has been a fight to keep this in agriculture because it is some of the most productive land in the basin."

According to WaterWatch, the lease land is no longer compatible with the goals of the refuge managers. Their vision is also to see the land turned back to the refuge managers to restore it to natural wetlands.

"It is not managed for wildlife and this is only occurring because of political pressure from this administration," said Hunter.

Refuge Manager, Ron Cole, responded by saying he is happy to see they appreciate what they are doing on the refuge. He disagreed that it is a nickel and dime approach. "When you take an all or nothing approach, you only end up in court" said Cole. "We are making tremendous headway on developing sustainable agriculture and increasing and improving habitat."

Cole said they have a law in place which dictates that agriculture and wetlands will both be on this refuge. The programs they are developing are showing they can co-exist and are mutually beneficial

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