Endangered Species Act battles arouse producers to action

Aug 26, 2011
by DTN

Although Corn Belt farmers scarcely face the consequences of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) up close, Klamath Basin farmers in Oregon and California say the agriculture industry in other parts of the country should take notice and get organized before a crisis occurs.

Those farmers learned the hard way how a crisis can help unite farmers or divide them.

Farmers in the Klamath Basin—southern Oregon and northern California— can track the beginning of government involvement in deciding water use back to the National Reclamation Act in 1902. The act led to reclaiming wetlands and turning them into dams, canals and ditches that encouraged irrigated fields. Veterans from the two world wars were able to get plots of land within the Klamath Project, which eventually grew to 1,400 farms with 210,000 cultivated acres in 2000.

But in 2001, in response to the ESA and court actions to protect three endangered species of fish, the U.S. Bu reau of Reclamation shut off water almost immediately to project irrigators in the Klamath Basin.

Project farmers lost crops and property. Many off-project farmers rushed in to help any way they could. Beatty, OR, farmer Thomas Mallams brought water, hay and money.

But Mallams saw it was too little, too late, and he realized farmers shouldn’t wait for a crisis before they spring to action.

“That may be too late,” Mallams said. “We came to an unpleasant reality check long ago that dealing with ESA and other such issues is nothing more than part of normal challenges facing agriculture each and every day—much like the weather and costs of doing business going up.

“Only difference is, we can and will make a difference here with how we respond.”

Many farmers in the Klamath Basin openly accuse the federal government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of encroaching on their constitutional rights to own property—most notably water—through the power of the ESA.

But while they struggled to survive when their precious water was shut off, their responses to what happened in Klamath show what can happen to any community in the country when faced with such big challenges.

Some basin farmers formed alliances, and pulled together the brightest minds from on the farm to the front lines.

But the water battle also created friction in the agriculture community— farmer vs. farmer in some cases.

Some Klamath irrigation project farmers have more senior water rights than other farmers. Yet, project irrigators are not allowed to irrigate at times while many off-project irrigators face no limits.

A sleeping giant was awakened in 2001—a spark of outrage among farmers who survived.

Standing ground Quartz

Valley, CA, ranch er Mark Baird plans to stand up for as long as it takes— until he’s left alone, or even thrown in jail.

Game wardens show up on his property unannounced and have threatened to shut off his water, claiming he needs a permit to divert water from a nearby stream for irrigation.

Baird said he finds evidence of unauthorized visits on his land; gates are left wide open and his Friesian horses let free.

“We’re tired,” he said. “I don’t make a dime on my ranch. We have no money for lawyers.”

Prior to the shutoff, Tulelake, CA, farmer Jacqui Krizo said producers mostly kept to themselves. The subsequent Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) in 2010 that directs the use of water, pitted project irrigators and off-project irrigators against each other. Farmers and ranchers responded by forming alliances.

“My crime was I had never gone to an irrigation district meeting,” Krizo said. “I did not know who my congressmen and senators were. I just knew that whoever was involved in politics was looking out for my best interests. This is the crime that has happened all over the world, because we farmers don’t want to be involved or go to meetings or make calls. We just want to farm and live a private life and be left alone.”

When non-government organizations, land conservancies, tribes and federal agencies negotiated the KBRA, she said she became suspicious at farmers’ limited representation at the table. Groups who were at the negotiating table only represented 10 percent of farmers from the Klamath Basin. Learning laws While they weren’t all involved in the agreement that affects what happens to their water, basin farmers have familiarized themselves with the Clean Water Act, the ESA, and try to influence proposed legislation in the state legislature and in Congress.

Following the water shutoff in 2001, basin producers stood together in protest. Thousands of people formed a mile-long ‘bucket brigade’ line on the streets of Klamath Falls, OR.

That was life prior to the KBRA in 2010.

‘Don’t, whatever you do, don’t allow the agencies and NGOs to convince you to alienate your neighboring resource users,” Krizo said. “Here, our farm leaders have the water fees of the constituents to make deals with the agencies and NGOs, against the wishes of the majority of the citizens.”

Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, a group that represented project irrigators at the KBRA table, said the agreement was just the beginning.

“I think we have to be vigilant constantly,” he said. “What is the time frame? At what point does someone say, ‘nice try, you guys.’ If they don’t implement this agreement, they can’t say it didn’t work. I think it was naive origi nally thinking there would be a consensus. It was way more of a process than it was an event, and it will not go as planned.”

Siskyou County, CA, Supervisor Marcia Armstrong said anything short of repealing the ESA isn’t enough to turn the tide in the region.

“Suddenly, private property must satisfy the public interests of species well-being before the property can be used by its owner,” she said.

The rights of farmers to irrigate have existed for decades, Armstrong said. But now, basin farmers must first satisfy public in-stream flow needs of endangered fish. The right to harvest private woodlands for timber must bend to set asides for protected owl habitat, she said.

“The land or water rights owner left with a valueless resource that he can not economically develop for his family’s benefit is told that this is not a property taking by the public and that there will be no just compensation for the value of lost use,” Armstrong said.

“The courts seem unsympathetic to the owner’s empty ditches, hands and pockets. The legislatures appear oblivious to the negative social and economic consequences being felt by families and communities from this law.”

As a result, Armstrong said, farmers and others have been “disheartened and disenfranchised.” This has led them to “make bad bargains with their freedoms and sell out their neighbor’s interests to survive,” she said.

For the farmers who speak up, whether for themselves or to support their neighbors, it isn’t easy.

Krizo said farmers realize that by speaking up, their lives are then under a microscope. She said that’s why farmers across the country should conduct their business as if the world is watching.

“Keep farming as efficiently and environmentally friendly as you can,” she said. “Your methods must be above reproach.” – DTN