Here is the way one of my articles described what might be called the center ring of one of the biggest environmental stories in 2001: “Encampments grew on both sides of the fences around the closed federal head gates, creating a surreal scene amid suburban homes on the north end of Klamath Falls. It was the result of what began as an April decision by biologists to help protected fish in an arid basin beset by drought and declines in water quality.

“Up to 200 farmers and their supporters flew American flags upside down outside the fences, illustrating their defiance of the federal government and its ruling that reserved water for endangered lake fish, called suckers, and threatened coho salmon in the Klamath River in this year of record drought. The decision has left many farms in the 200,000-acre Klamath Reclamation Project to dry out in the summer sun.

“On televisions facing federal agents inside the fences, farmers broadcast videotapes describing the decline of family farms and the government’s intentional killing of hatchery salmon. They also played the song ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ repeatedly over large loudspeakers.

“When officers turned floodlights on the crowd Saturday night, farmers drove pickup trucks up to the fences so their headlights and spotlights would shine on the officers.

“An ice cream truck, its music jingling, occasionally circled through the crowd that had gathered to watch.”

Missing the Story

From across the nation and the world, reporters descended into this circuslike southern Oregon setting more than a year ago to cover an environmental furor nearly a century in the making. It’s one that includes many victims and involves complicated science with no clear solutions, enigmatic species and racial tensions, not to mention contorted interstate politics and millions in taxpayer dollars.

Most of the reporters, unfortunately, missed most of that. Instead, they (including me, as you just read) all too often covered the show.

Farmers were the most obvious victims when federal agencies cut off their irrigation water in the summer of 2001. They quickly learned how to use a press that gravitated toward the obvious. They staged protests and, in a flamboyant but largely fruitless exercise, dramatized their plight by illegally cracking open head gates that control water to their windswept farms. Federal marshals swooped in and closed the gates. When it looked like the TV crews were tuckered out and packing up their satellite trucks, the farmers pieced together a makeshift pipeline to suck up water they weren’t supposed to have.

The TV crews stayed, of course, watching another round in the pitched battle the press almost universally boiled down to three words: fish versus farmers. This was convenient for the most vocal farmers and politicians, who then could advance the alluring but simplistic argument that farmers are, of course, more important than fish—especially the bottom-feeding sucker, a long-lived monster of a fish that is something of a living fossil and subject to as much speculation as the dinosaurs.

Fox News reporters were hailed during the local Fourth of July parade for telling the story almost exclusively from the farmers’ point of view.

But, in all reality, it was far more than fish vs. farmers. There’s no doubt that farmers suffered in 2001, but there had long been plenty of environmental and economic pain to go around. It was more accurately fish vs. farmers vs. tribes vs. other fish vs. million-dollar farms in California vs. fishermen vs. wildlife refuges vs. environmentalists vs. drought vs. other farmers. In some parts of the basin, there are 5,600 competing claims for the same water. Wildlife, tribal, farm and other needs all overlap. Even in the wettest year, there would never be enough water to satisfy them all.

This area was, and still is, a massive ecosystem so squeezed of water over the last century it cannot meet all the demands people and wildlife place upon it. That’s the fundamental story, but also the forgotten one.

Untangling Its Threads

The Klamath Basin, in an unfortunate way, is a victim of its own success. It’s an arid high desert, but the surrounding mountains provided plenty of water that once filled vast wetlands and drew thick clouds of migratory birds. Soon the government moved Indians onto a reservation (later liquidated into logging land), drained the “swamps,” and lured ambitious farmers with cheap water from a federal reclamation project. Nobody, other than local tribes, perhaps, much cared about the suckers that flowed into fields with irrigation water and rotted into fertilizer. Nobody worried much about coho salmon blocked by hydroelectric dams.

Farming boomed. But as natural resources like the suckers eroded, the Klamath Tribes began a downward spiral into one of the state’s poorest populations. Fishing fleets off the coast of California and Oregon collapsed as salmon runs on the Klamath and other rivers collapsed. Finally the Endangered Species Act led federal agencies to hold enough water for the sucker in the same shallow lake where farmers get their irrigation water. And it required dispensing more water for salmon, which also struggle against massive, but curiously unquestioned, diversions to wealthy farms in California’s Central Valley.

When one of the toughest droughts of the century struck, biologists said the suckers and salmon needed all the water. And the farmers, themselves suckered by old government promises of all the water they could want, got caught in the middle—the latest of all too many victims.

My editors and I saw during the initial water allocations that Klamath was boiling into our biggest environmental story of the year and launched a crash series explaining why. But it was hard to stay on track as the drama morphed into a bitter circus. Editors were focused on whether emboldened farmers were getting busted (one wanted to get arrested so badly he chained himself to the head gates only to woefully unlock himself when no cops dragged him away) or whether the National Guard might be called out to control angry crowds. Environmentalists were warned (by the sheriff) to stay out of town for their own safety. Articles offering alternate points of view got reporters branded enemies of family farms. Farmers who broke ranks to discuss retiring some cropland faced bitter hostility.

All sides had scientists who poked so many holes in each other’s work reporters rightfully wondered whom to believe. And it seemed insane to try to explain to readers that scientists do not know precisely how much water suckers need when farmers who needed the same water were seeing their John Deeres repossessed.

Often, reporting the story in full made it murkier and more confusing, which consequently made it all the more tempting to not do so.

The story is far from over. Scientists convened by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton said in early 2002 that knowledge of the fish was so unclear it did not support cutting off water to farms. They also said it did not support severe cutbacks to fish. They did not say it was bad science—a crucial distinction lost on distressed farmers and in most press accounts—only that science could not prove extra water would save fish. After federal agencies delivered farmers a full supply of water that left downstream salmon with less, more than 33,000 salmon died in the fall of 2002 in what is thought to be the largest adult salmon kill in U.S. history.

Again, science is unclear. Did the low water kill the fish or the high temperatures? Were there too many fish? Was it disease or stress? More likely, it was some combination of all those factors. As much as it’s unfair to blame any one factor, it’s just as unreasonable to excuse it.

After all, perhaps the only sure thing I can draw from more than a decade of environment reporting is that nothing is clear, but everything is connected.

Michael Milstein covers natural resources and public lands for The Oregonian in Portland. Before joining The Oregonian in 2000, he spent more than 10 years covering Yellowstone National Park, science and the environment for the Billings (Montana) Gazette.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment