Drain the Klamath of its ugly politics

Drain the Klamath of its ugly politics

Oregonian article by Steve Pedery, Conservation Director of Oregon Wild, on the politics behind the Klamath Basin.

By Steve Pedery
July 06, 2007


Americans expect our government to make decisions about the survival of fish and wildlife based on science. But in the drought-plagued Klamath Basin, science has long taken a back seat to political favoritism. Under the Bush administration, fish and wildlife ended up high and dry while powerful interest groups ended up with the water.

But those days may be coming to an end. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has announced he will hold hearings to investigate reports that Vice President Dick Cheney personally intervened to overturn fish restoration efforts in the Klamath Basin, sending scarce water to irrigation interests instead of fish, despite the objections of scientists. That action led to a massive fish kill that claimed more than 70,000 Klamath River salmon in 2002, a catastrophe that led to fishing restrictions that have devastated both Oregon’s and California’s commercial salmon industry.

A Washington Post investigation uncovered Cheney’s role in this tragedy, finding that he personally called natural resources managers to demand that they cut water for salmon during a drought year to favor agribusiness interests. According to the Post, Cheney wanted to reward political allies and help Republican Sen. Gordon Smith win re-election in Oregon.

That wasn’t the first time politicians have sacrificed the Klamath’s fish and wildlife to achieve political goals. In 2003, The Wall Street Journal found that the political motives of White House adviser Karl Rove, not science, had driven federal decisions in the Klamath. And in 2002, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden killed a $175 million restoration bill for the Klamath that would have benefited both salmon and farmers.

Unfortunately, this exploitation is ongoing. As detailed in the Los Angeles Times, the administration and its agribusiness allies have hijacked closed-door talks over the removal of four Klamath River dams, demanding that conservation groups, Native American tribes and fishing interests support permanent commercial agricultural development on the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges Complex. They have also insisted that all participants agree to guaranteed water deliveries for agribusiness and significantly weakened protections for salmon, bull trout and other endangered fish. That’s not how most Americans want our government to operate.

The good news is there are fair and cost-effective solutions for the Klamath. Phasing out commercial farming on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National wildlife refuges would improve habitat for wildlife, cut pollution entering the Klamath River and reduce demand for water. Removing the lower four Klamath dams — a move favored by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — would boost salmon numbers by opening up 300 miles of former habitat. A voluntary program to compensate farmers willing to reduce water use in the Klamath and restore rivers and streams would not only help the environment but also ensure a more stable water supply for irrigation.

Today the Klamath Basin stands at a crossroads. This most recent scandal and the coming investigations into Cheney’s actions are yet another example of why Congress needs to act to resolve the environmental crisis facing the Klamath. Continuing to leave the region’s fish and wildlife at the mercy of politics is a recipe for disaster. It’s appalling that the vice president used his influence to overturn science-based decisions that resulted in the largest fish kill in Northwest history. But it’s even more appalling that five years after that fish kill little has been done to prevent a repeat.

Steve Pedery is conservation director for Oregon Wild.