Wyden legislation is not what the Klamath refuges need

Wyden legislation is not what the Klamath refuges need
By Bob Sallinger and Jim McCarthy
Oregonian Guest Opinion

June 27, 2015

Lower Klamath NWR by Brett Cole

Parched canal in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brett Cole.

In a recent guest column, Jason A. Atkinson and Michael Sutton assert that those eager to restore fish and wildlife habitat in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges should support Sen. Ron Wyden’s stalled Klamath legislation. While we share the authors’ concern for the Klamath’s spectacular refuges, we do not share their view that Sen. Wyden’s bill provides real solutions for the specific challenges facing these invaluable public lands or for the basin’s longstanding water problems over all.

In fact, this legislation would make some of the critical problems in the basin worse by attempting to lock in the harmful commercial farmland leasing program on the Klamath’s refuges for another 50 years, just as wildlife advocates are making strides toward phasing this practice out.

This government program — which is unique in the nation and distinct from more well-known cooperative farming programs on many national wildlife refuges — annually displaces some 22,000 acres of refuge wetland habitat in favor of agribusiness, regularly consumes nearly all of the refuges’ available water supply, allows the use of toxic pesticides and oversees the wholesale mechanized destruction of baby and adult birds in their nests each spring. As a consequence of this program, the federal government declared this year that it would not provide water to the already parched Klamath refuge wetlands but would instead direct the refuge’s most senior water rights to supply commercial crops grown on the refuges. This shameful decision undermines the established purposes of these refuges and represents a virtual death sentence for thousands of migratory waterfowl.

Indeed, since 2012, tens of thousands of birds in these refuges have died for lack of water as a result of similar decisions by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is ultimately responsible for these public lands. With few wetland acres available due to lack of water, large numbers of waterfowl pack together during migration periods, leading to lethal disease outbreaks. Refuge staff estimate that some 20,000 birds perished this way in 2014. Similar conditions on these refuges sparked massive waterfowl die-offs in 2012 and 2013.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has the authority to stop this needless waste and destruction. It is within the secretary’s power to halt new bids on commercial leases and phase out the refuge lease program. This would free up some 27.7 billion gallons of water under the refuges’ senior water rights, enough to provide adequate habitat for migratory and breeding birds and prevent die-offs during drought years.

Unfortunately, Jewell has failed year after year to use the tools at her disposal to help these refuges, with tragic results for wildlife. The good news is that we the public now have the ability to save the some of the Klamath’s last remaining wetland habitats through the power of the law and a transparent decision-making process.

This spring, the Audubon Society of Portland, WaterWatch, Oregon Wild, and Crag Law Center won a court ruling ordering the federal government to complete long overdue “comprehensive conservation plans” for managing the Klamath refuges by Aug. 1, 2016. These plans, mandated by a 1997 law, require the government to ensure that commercial activities on refuge lands do not harm wildlife. While the vast majority of refuges in the United States have completed such plans, five Klamath refuges have tellingly lagged behind. Many conservationists who have worked for decades in the Klamath believe that the completion and implementation of these plans — following the letter of the law — is the best hope for saving these long-abused refuges.

We urge the public to participate in this upcoming public process to decide the future of the Klamath refuges. Please join with us in making the case that wildlife like eagles, ducks, and geese must take priority over agribusiness on our national wildlife refuge lands, and help secure a better future for the Klamath’s spectacular wildlife.

Bob Sallinger is Conservation Director for the Audubon Society of Portland. Jim McCarthy is Communications Director and Southern Oregon Program Manager for WaterWatch of Oregon.