Running on Empty


In early July irate farmers used a diamond-bladed chainsaw and a blowtorch to open up an irrigation canal in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Although the farmers were frustrated by a severe drought that has affected 200,000 acres of cropland--land that since 1905 has been kept fertile through the use of irrigation--the trigger for this act of civil disobedience came when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut off the water. The bureau's move, an effort to save the threatened coho salmon as well as two species of endangered suckerfish, marked the first victory for the area's Indian tribes and salmon fishermen--arrayed against the farmers--in the Klamath Basin water wars.

Sprawling across 170,000 acres, the six national wildlife refuges of the Klamath Basin constitute the biggest freshwater wetland west of the Mississippi River. In some years the area attracts 80 percent of the migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway. More than 400 species of birds have been observed at the refuges, and peak populations top 1 million individuals. The Klamath Basin refuges are also the winter home of 300 to 900 bald eagles, the largest population in the lower 48 states.

Lower Klamath, the first refuge created in the basin, was established in 1908. However, in 1905 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had begun a project that, over the years, has converted 75 percent of the area's lakes and marshes to farmland. And therein lies the crisis that threatens to overwhelm the Klamath refuges. Legally, the basin's water must first be allocated to endangered species, second to Native Americans, and third to agriculture. The refuges themselves are last in line for water; indeed, several of them are suffering as much as the farmland from the effects of the drought.

The stakeholders have been negotiating for several years, although so far all attempts at finding a solution seem only to have made the situation more combustible. "I feel like we're in a boat swept down the river with no oars and no rudder," says Phil Norton, the refuge manager for all six units. "And instead of doing anything about it, we're in the boat, fighting like hell." In one proposed solution, the federal government would engineer a land swap that would involve retiring the refuges' 22,000 acres of leased agricultural land and then buying 30,000 acres of private farmland outside their borders for $60 million. The purchased land would then be turned over to the displaced farmers.

Time is running out, warns Mike Daulton, Audubon's assistant director of government relations. "We recognize that farmers need aid," he says. "But the refuges are on the verge of an ecological disaster."

--Ted Kerasote



© 2001  NASI

Sound off! Send a letter to the editor
about this piece.

Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print edition!


What You
Can Do

Read "Refuges in Crisis," the Audubon Society's report on the national wildlife refuge system. (A hard copy is available by calling 202-861-2242. And be sure to attend the Bald Eagle Conference, sponsored each February by the Klamath Basin Audubon Society.