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Fish Out of Water: Behind the Wise Use Movement's Victory in Klamath
By Sheldon Rampton, PR Watch
Second Quarter 2003

Coming at the end of the summer of 2002, it was the worst fishery disaster that anyone had seen in the history of the Klamath watershed--a massive die-off of an estimated 34,000 chinook, coho and steelhead salmon on the Klamath River near the California-Oregon border. In a single blow, more than 30 percent of the entire year's salmon run was wiped out.

"It's a lot larger than anything I've seen reported on the TV news or in the newspapers," said Walt Lara of the Yurok Tribal Council, one of the Native American tribes that fishes in Klamath. "The whole chinook run will be impacted, probably by 85 to 95 percent. And the fish are dying as we speak. They're swimming around in circles. They bump up against your legs when you're standing in the water. These are beautiful, chrome-bright fish that are dying, not fish that are already spawned out." The immediate physical cause of the die-off was stress, warm water conditions, and overcrowding due to low water levels, which biologists and environmentalists attribute to a new Bush administration water strategy that redirected water from salmon to farmers.

The real cause, however, was political, the culmination of a century of misguided government policy capped by a fierce propaganda war that united government water agencies, wealthy farm interests, corporate-funded think tanks and far-right conspiracy theorists in a campaign whose stated objective was to "save farmers" but whose actual purpose was to gut the Endangered Species Act.

The salmon died because of decisions made to benefit agribusiness at the expense of the environment, sports anglers and Native American tribes that derive an important portion of their income from the fish.

Too Little Water, Too Many Users

Thanks largely to decisions made in the early part of the 20th century, Klamath Basin is caught up in a classic resource war between competing economic interests--the sort of conflict that has shaped politics in the American West since the wars between cattle ranching and sheep grazing.

In the early 1900s, Teddy Roosevelt designated the area--a naturally arid region that receives less annual rainfall than the Yuma Desert--as a "reclamation project" to be overseen by the newly-created U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In the language of the time, "reclamation" meant the building of dams and other systems for the massive diversion of water so it could serve agricultural production. "At that time, society's values demanded that the 'worthless' swamps be drained and the fertile land cultivated. More famland would produce more food to nourish a hungry and expanding nation," says Phil Norton, manager at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge--a refuge that, ironically, was created with the same stroke of Roosevelt's pen that created the reclamation project. No one realized at the time that the vision of Roosevelt the conservationist would collide with the vision of Roosevelt the nation-builder.

The government transformed 80 percent of the area's 350,000 acres of wetlands into cropland. Waters were diverted from lakes and rivers to create an irrigation system.

By the 1980s, however, there simply wasn't enough water for fish and farmers alike. Constant draining lowered water levels in Klamath Lake, and fish populations declined. In 1986, Native American tribes asked the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect two species of suckerfish in the Klamath Basin by recognizing them as endangered species. The coho salmon was later added to the endangered list.

"The bureau's dams and water diversions are a major reason why Klamath River salmon runs, once the third-biggest on the West Coast, have been nearly wiped out," said WaterWatch of Oregon's Bob Hunter. "And the Klamath basin is not unusual. The bureau has been a big factor in the crash of native fish populations across the West."

Low water levels have historically contributed to fish die-offs in the Klamath area. Low water levels raise the temperature, leading to quicker algae growth that in turn reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen, which fish need to survive. Additional stress to fish population comes from water pollution, as agricultural runoff laced with pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste flows from the Klamath Irrigation Project down the Klamath Straits Drain and into the Klamath River.

When drought punished the west in 2001, conservation groups sued successfully to ensure that water would be provided at survival levels for endangered sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake and threatened Coho salmon in the Klamath River. As a result, 90 percent of the farmers dependent on water from the Upper Klamath Lake were told that they wouldn't get any water that year.

Long accustomed to having the first priority for water deliveries, farmers responded with protests.

Wise Guys

For the anti-environmental "wise use" movement, the conflict in Klamath was an ideal publicity vehicle: an opportunity to broadcast messages its founders have been carefully honing for more than a decade.

The "wise use" movement began as a fundraising project of two political entrepreneurs: Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb, a professional fundraiser whose Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise reportedly takes in about $5 million per year for various right-wing causes. Funded in part by timber, mining and chemical companies, wise use organizers have aggressively promoted disinformation campaigns that discredit environmentalists by calling them "pagans," "eco-nazis" and "communists." At their founding conference, held in 1988, wise use organizers placed abolition or "reform" of the Endangered Species Act on its short list of movement objectives.

In a 1991 interview with Outside magazine, Arnold explained that he chose the term "wise use" because the phrase was ambiguous and fit neatly in newspaper headlines. "Facts don't matter; in politics perception is reality," he said. According to William Kevin Burke, who profiled the wise use movement for Public Eye magazine, this emphasis on perception over reality typifies the wise use outreach strategy.

"The movement's signature public relations tactic is to frame complex environmental and economic issues in simple, scapegoating terms that benefit its corporate backers," Burke said. "In the movement's Pacific Northwest birthplace, wise users harp on a supposed battle for survival between spotted owls and the families of the men and women who make their livings harvesting and milling the old growth timber that is the owl's habitat. w to speak in sound bites. Messages such as 'jobs versus owls' have been adapted to a variety of environmental issues and have helped spark an anti-green backlash that has defeated river protection efforts and threatens to open millions of acres of wilderness to resource extraction."

To mobilize its troops, the wise use movement uses standard PR techniques of astroturf organizing, a corporate version of grassroots organizing that recruits rank-and-file citizen activists in support of corporate agendas. Campaigns & Elections magazine defines "astroturf organizing" as a "grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them."

"Pro-industry citizen activist groups can do things the industry can't," explained Arnold in a candid talk to the Ontario Forest Industries Association. "It can form coalitions to build real political clout. It can be an effective and convincing advocate for your industry. It can evoke powerful archetypes such as the sanctity of the family, the virtue of the close-knit community, the natural wisdom of the rural dweller, and many others I'm sure you can think of. It can use the tactic of the intelligent attack against environmentalists and take the battle to them instead of forever responding to environmentalist initiatives. And it can turn the public against your enemies."

In the Klamath water conflict, the wise use movement followed this strategy to the letter. The "jobs versus owls" message was rescripted as "farmers versus fish." Some of the tactics used in Klamath were modeled directly after civil disobedience actions in Nevada, where wise use activists bulldozed through a road closed by a Forest Ranger, threatened public officials with violence, and organized a "shovel brigade" to rebuild a road that had been closed to protect trout.

In Klamath, protesters used similar civil disobedience tactics, forcibly breaking through the headgate on several occasions to release water, destroying public property in the process. These acts of vandalism generated intense media coverage and also forced the government to spend some $800,000 on security measures including barbed wire-topped fencing, surveillance cameras and round-the-clock guards.

"When they got their water cut back and decided to make a fight of it, it almost immediately attracted a bunch of people from wise use like People for the USA and the Shovel Brigade, the true believers," says Felice Pace of the Klamath Forest Alliance, a local environmental group. "Part of the reason they got attracted is that we have a high number of People for the USA chapters right here. We already had this tradition of right-wing anti-environmentalism."

"The Klamath Basin water war also represents a subtle coming-of-age for the so-called wise-use movement," reported the Seattle Times. "Residents here work with the same wise-use groups and admit they took the idea for some demonstrations from Nevada. But here, farmers and merchants are media-savvy, producing videotapes of their plight, and staging less-threatening demonstrations of civil disobedience. Klamath irrigators are even represented by a lobbying firm that employs former U.S. Rep. Bob Smith, R-OR, the onetime chair of the House Agriculture Committee."

The conflict in Klamath marked a coming-of-age in another sense as well. The wise use movement began as a largely synthetic grassroots movement, created at the behest of major corporations and industries. Klamath showed that the anti-environmental movement has developed genuine strength at the grassroots, with its own cadre of committed, passionate activists.

"When you went down to the parking lot where the rallies were held, you'd see more license plates from Idaho than you'd see from Oregon," recalls Felice Pace. "The grassroots guys who came out weren't folks with a lot of money. If you looked at their rigs with the bumper stickers all over them, you could tell that they're not rich folks. They're like retired mill workers and stuff. I was there a lot, and I'd go down onto the grounds and talk to people, and it seemed to be truly grassroots to me. It didn't seem to be directed from anywhere else. It was people who maybe have read Ron Arnold's book and definitely subscribe to his ideas, but I've known some of the people who were involved personally for 25 years. I saw no evidence that somebody was pulling the strings from somewhere else."

Fish Stories

Many of the reports on the Klamath controversy accused the government of sacrificing people for fish. They often failed to mention, even in passing, the other people involved in the equation, including the Native American tribes--the Hupa, Yurok and Karok, not to mention the Klamath, for which the region was named--that have lived and fished in the area since before Europeans arrived. Irrigators complained that the government had promised they would have water for their crops "forever" and then reneged on the promise--again without mentioning that the Native American tribes had received the same promise from the government in a treaty that was signed in 1864.

"We're not like other people. We eat fish daily. We're canning fish. We're smoking fish, and we're eating it at the table fresh," said Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe. "The government promised to protect the resources we depend on for our very survival, and that's not something that should be taken lightly."

"I heard a farmer who lost his water saying he felt like he was part of a big government experiment," commented Adrian Witcraft, a member of the Klamath Tribes. "All I can say is, welcome to the party."

Almost without exception, the national press corps portrayed the conflict exactly as the irrigators portrayed it--as a conflict between farmers and the endangered "sucker fish," a term preferred by the farmers because of its negative connotations. (The tribes prefer to call it "mullet.") Salmon--by far the more economically significant species--were rarely mentioned. One restaurant in Klamath Falls, Oregon sold a "Sucker Fish Sandwich" (actually made of cod) with proceeds going to fight the Endangered Species Act.

The ratcheting rhetoric and resulting tensions got so bad, according to the Portland Oregonian, that environmentalists were warned to stay out of town because their personal safety could be in danger, and members of the Klamath tribes were afraid to shop in Klamath Falls, where they faced racial taunts comparing them to endangered sucker fish.

The "people versus fish" rhetoric also ignored people like the residents of Bonanza, Oregon, a small town inside the Klamath Basin that was once known for the purity of its water but now relies on bottled water or boiling now that toxic runoff from the farmers has contaminated their wells and natural springs with toxins, algae and coliform bacteria. Last year at the peak of the water controversy, the town council voted to sue the Klamath Basin Irrigation District, notwithstanding threats from farmers who showed up en masse to challenge the council's authority. "Whenever we have meetings, we get shouted down, overpowered," said former Bonanza City Councilman Bob Hoylman, who ultimately resigned his position because of the rising tensions and death threats.

The loss of water was undeniably a wrenching shock to the farmers affected by the cutoff, but their losses actually pale compared to the loss of an estimated 7,000 coastal fishing jobs over the past three decades due to species decline in the Klamath River--a decline caused by water depletion and pollution for which farmers and ranchers are primarily responsible. While outsiders portrayed the farmers as put-upon victims, Tom Stockley, a former commercial salmon fisherman from the area, flatly characterizes the farmers as "water robbers."

Natural Wisdom of the Rural Dweller

One of the great ironies of the Klamath water controversy is that even as they invoked myths of rugged self-reliance and railed against the government, the farmers and their allies lobbied simultaneously for government handouts on a massive scale. Even prior to the eruption of the water controversy in the summer of 2001, more than half the annual income from farms and ranches in the area came from federal crop supports.

To compensate for losses due to the water policy, the U.S. Congress approved another $20 million in aid to 1,110 Klamath Project irrigators in the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2001. The states of California and Oregon came up with $10.5 million for emergency well-drilling and other purposes. The USDA supplied $225,000 to help livestock owners install pipes, troughs and wells, and another $1.3 million went to help farmers plant cover crops. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spent $2.5 million purchasing water from well-holders to supply farmers and wildlife refuges, plus another $2.7 million paid to farmers for idling 17,000 acres under its Pilot Irrigation Demand Reduction Program.

"Over the course of the summer and fall of 2001, $48,625,000 in government assistance flowed into the Klamath Project," says James McCarthy of the Klamath Forest Alliance. "Some funding plans targeted those facing true hardship, but much assistance was not need-based. In some cases farm families struggling to get by with no water received the same aid as neighbors irrigating normally with water from wells drilled with public funds."

In fact, McCarthy says, "irrigators--and in particular the larger operators within the Tulelake Irrigation District (TID)--reaped an unprecedented cash windfall in 2001. According to a recent report by the economics consulting firm ECONorthwest, farms in Klamath County producing at least $10,000 in annual sales yielded an average of $34 per acre net cash return in 1997. In 2001, a Klamath Project farm earned a minimum of $129 an acre in federal assistance. In 1997, the average 1,089 acre Klamath County farm enjoyed a net cash return of $36,904. In 2001, a Klamath Project farm of the same size received a minimum of $140,481 from the government, regardless of past economic output."

The US Patriot Act

Irrigators also sought to build sympathy for their cause by pointing out that some of the farmers in Klamath Basin were veterans who received government land grants after World Wars I and II. (In fact, the Klamath project started before either World War had even broken out.)

An article by American Legion editor Jeff Stoffer played up the patriotic angle, depicting the irrigators as a "country-western version of the Great American Dream" and quoting hyperbolic statements of outrage from area veterans like George Smith, who drove an ambulance during World War II. "They couldn't have done us any more harm with an atomic bomb," Smith said of the government's water policy.

Stoffer also quoted Marty Macy, president of the Tulelake Growers Association, who dismissed proposals to ease water demand by buying out some of the farmers. "You don't compensate a veteran who survived the Bataan Death March by telling him we're going to pay you off so you can leave," Macy said, characterizing the water conflict as an attempt at "rural cleansing" by "environmental organizations, federal bureaucracies, Klamath and Yurok tribes."

"It's going to happen everywhere in the West," chimed in Marion Palmer, a veteran of World War II whose father also fought in World War I.

The Plot Thickens

Supporters of the Klamath farmers frequently lapsed into conspiracy-theory rhetoric. In a column titled "A Radical Reality," Bill Kennedy of the Family Farm Alliance recounted a conversation with Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Dan Keppen about "those in the extreme environmental movement" who "want to paint themselves as conservationists." In reality, Kennedy said, "The goal is not to conserve anything. These extreme groups want to destroy our production, our infrastructure and our communities. ... Once our industry has been abandoned in favor of imported food and fiber, our nation will be at the mercy of countries with socialist agendas."

Similar rhetoric came from Tom DeWeese, a long-time PR professional who runs a think tank called the American Policy Center that specializes in appeals to the looney fringe of the far right. DeWeese called the government's water policy "an attack on sanity itself. It lacks all rationality. It is an attack on these farmers, but it is also yet another example of the way radical environmentalists continue to attack on the most essential elements of the West's economic life; farming, ranching, mining and the timber industries. It is ultimately an attack on every American's property rights because ownership of any land anywhere can be destroyed by simply asserting that an endangered species exists on it or may at some time use it. ... The agenda of these radical environmentalists is aimed directly at the destruction of our nation's economic base."

Farmers became a totem throughout the United States for right-wing talk show hosts and opponents of the Endangered Species Act. Former Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth addressed pro-farm protestors, telling them they were in the middle of a revolution and were at war with "green bigots who call themselves environmentalists." She told the people "it's time to fight."

Groups participating in support of the Klamath irrigators included Frontiers of Freedom, Defenders of Property Rights, and the American Land Rights Association. In the state of Washington, KeepAndBearArms.com, a pro-gun web site, announced that the "Washington State Tyranny Response Team" was sponsoring a fund drive to assist the Klamath farmers. The National Center for Public Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank, declared that "farmers and ranchers are becoming the real endangered species."

The cause of the Klamath irrigators was also taken up by the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition (NESARC), which the Environmental Working Group describes as a "industry front group brought into existence in 1991 to 'reform' protections under the Endangered Species Act, making them more industry friendly. Members include the American Petroleum Institute, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Public Power Association, National Association of Homebuilders, and other utilities, mining, hydropower, and development groups with a financial interest in seeing the Endangered Species Act weakened." A number of state and national water lobbies are also members, including the Association of California Water Agencies, the National Rural Water Association, the National Water Resources Association, and water agencies in states including Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The Republican Party adopted Klamath as a cause, with state politicians including Oregon Senator Gordon Smith and Congressmen Greg Walden and Wally Herger speaking at pro-farmer rallies.

Al King, Chairman of the Klamath County Republican Central Committee and Vice Chairman of the state party, spoke at the annual "Fly In for Freedom" of the Alliance for America, another anti-environmental group affiliated with the wise use movement.

"Farmers, ranchers, foresters, ski operators, and others bear all the burden from the Endangered Species Act, but the federal agencies that make the decisions get off scot-free," King told the rally. "Federal agencies have used the ESA to ruin land values and to even take property from landowners. When a federal agency causes these losses because of the ESA, the federal government should be required to repay the full financial loss to the owner."

Legal Eagles

In addition to think tanks, politicians and grassroots support, the farmers received legal assistance from Marzulla and Marzulla, a law firm with longstanding ties to the wise use movement through organizations such as Defenders of Property Rights and the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Additional legal support came from the Pacific Legal Foundation, an organization that sees itself as a "conservative counterpart to the American Civil Liberties Union." Whereas the ACLU focuses on defending freedom of speech and expression, the PLF--funded by right-wing mainstays such as the John M. Olin Foundation and the Castle Rock Foundation--specializes in lawsuits that defend landowners against environmental regulations.

PLF sued in U.S. District Court on behalf of farmers, demanding the removal of coho salmon from the Endandered Species Act and the release of water for their crops. "For over 30 years, environmental purists have actively promoted the pantheistic notion that plant and animal life rank higher on the species hierarchy than people," explained PLF Vice President Dave Stirling, a conservative Republican and former chief deputy attorney general in California.

"What we are trying to do there is basically raise the public's awareness of just exactly what is going on with the ESA, what it really means when a species is listed," said PLF attorney Russell Brooks in an interview with the National Water Resources Association (NWRA). A federation of state organizations whose membership includes rural water districts, municipal water entities and commercial companies, the NWRA is one of the more powerful water industry lobbying groups.

Brooks said the Endangered Species Act "is not just about taking care of furry little critters that have a large amount of public support. What it really means is that firefighters are dying in fires because they can't get water due to ESA restrictions. It means that houses are being flooded because the Army Corp of Engineers can't repair a levy due to ESA restrictions. It means that needed schools and hospitals either can't be built or end up being built at a far greater cost many years later because of ESA restrictions and permitting requirements. We are trying to raise awareness that the Endangered Species Act simply does not consider people. It only considers protecting species at any costs, at all costs, and no matter what the costs. Therefore, the ESA is a bad law because it doesn't consider the real world effects on people."

"Well, we certainly look forward to working with you on your Endangered Species Act Reform Project and please keep us informed of everything that you are doing with that," responded the NWRA interviewer. "Is there anything NWRA members can do to assist you now?"

"Beyond the fight in courts of law, we all must also fight in the court of public opinion," Brooks replied.

In March 2002, the Bush administration sided with the farmers and withdrew "critical habitat" designations for 19 species of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. "The Marine Fisheries Service said fish would not be harmed by the decision," reported Los Angeles Times writer Elizabeth Shogren.

On March 29, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman personally attended a ceremony to mark the opening of canal headgates to deliver water to farmers in the Klamath Project. "We are pleased to be able to open these headgates to provide water to farmers," Norton said, adding, "our goals are to protect farm families, restore the health of the ecosystem, honor our trust responsibilities to tribes and recover endangered species." The fish die-off began a few months later.

On November 2, 2002, the Portland Oregonian reported that the Bush administration "withheld reports that concluded buying out farms in the Klamath Basin and leaving their irrigation water in the Klamath River would create a thriving downstream fishery and expanded recreation with a value that far exceeds that of the farms. ... Three reports by U.S. Geological Survey economists and other researchers were completed last year and went through review by outside scientists. But their submission to scientific journals has been delayed by high administration officials, said Andrew Sleeper, a consulting statistician who helped write one of the reports.

"They are basically holding it up for publication for some internal political reasons," Sleeper said.

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