Officials acknowledge Klamath Basin farmers are deeply rooted

GRANTS PASS, Ore. 6/18/02-- Faced with legal and political obstacles, managers of the Klamath Basin national wildlife refuges have given up trying to move commercial farming off land that was once marsh used by Pacific Flyway waterfowl.

"The laws the way they are and the politics the way they are, farming is going to be part of our life," said Phil Norton, manager of the national wildlife refuges straddling the Oregon-California border. "We are trying to work with the local community."

Instead, the refuges will examine a plan to rotate water storage, farming and wildlife habitat through four areas of drained marsh known as sumps on the Tule Lake refuge to improve wildlife habitat as well as farm production, Norton said.


The decision drew criticism from environmentalists, who have been pressing to move farming off 22,000 acres of the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath refuges, a stopover for 85 percent of the ducks, geese and other birds that migrate through the Pacific Flyway from Alaska to South America.

"Is this a wildlife refuge or a potato refuge?" said Jim Waltman of The Wilderness Society.

Farmers were split between those who do not want to lose access to some of the most economically successful farmlands in the area, and others interested in selling out in the face of uncertainty over future water availability and commodity prices.

Water to irrigate most of the Klamath Reclamation Project, which includes the refuge farmlands, was shut off last summer during a drought to reserve water for threatened and endangered fish.

Bidding for leases

Since 1964, the Kuchel Act has institutionalized farming on 15,000 acres of Tule Lake and 6,000 acres of the Lower Klamath national wildlife refuges. Local farmers bid each year on leases for the farmland.

During last summer's water crisis, when irrigation was shut off to most of the 220,000 acres of the Klamath Reclamation Project to protected threatened and endangered fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering a plan to move the farm leases off the refuges.

The American Land Conservancy lined up options to buy 20,000 acres of farmland off the refuge. If the federal government would buy the land, it could lease it to farmers, and the land on the marshes on the refuge drained for farmland could be restored to marsh for wildlife.

No support

While the plan had support under the Clinton administration, there was none under President Bush, Norton said.

"Politically right now, to try to do a land buyout is not going to fly," Norton said.

Environmentalists have been pushing for years to remove farming from the refuges, arguing that it pollutes local waters with pesticides and fertilizers, consumes limited water that should go to wildlife, and displaces wildlife from scarce habitat.

"This is one more example, we fear, of the Bush administration looking at our public lands, even national wildlife refuges, as a way to allow private developmental interests to exploit the public's resources," said Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

Bob Gasser, who serves on the leaselands committee of the Tule Lake Irrigation District, said farmers were not interested in seeing some of the best farmland in the area traded for less productive ground.

The Tule Lake sumps store water coming off the Klamath Reclamation Project before it is pumped to the Klamath River. Because the water level is kept static, the marsh deteriorates. By drying out one sump two years ago, then flooding it again, the refuge was able to generate a productive marsh that attracted thousands of birds, Norton said.

"It will be a long and pricey issue to address, but it will restore wildlife values back to Tule Lake, and keep farmlands viable," Norton said.

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