A new film tells the story of the Klamath River agreements

Republican lawmaker-turned-filmmaker, Jason Atkinson on why conservation doesn’t have to be a partisan issue.

 

In 1918 the Klamath River, which stretches 263 miles from southern Oregon into northern California, saw its first dam. The development sparked decades of fighting between farmers, native tribes and environmental activists over rights to the river. But in 2014, they set aside their differences and signed the 93-page Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, which would dismantle four dams, opening 420 miles of fish habitat and restoring decimated salmon runs by an estimated 80 percent. Now, the agreement just needs the approval of Congress to be enacted.

A new documentary, A River Between Us, set for release this spring, examines the history of the conflict and the grassroots efforts that led to the landmark 2014 agreement. The film was made by former Oregon state senator Jason Atkinson and filmmaker Jeff Martin. Atkinson, a fifth generation farmer along the Klamath, has a long personal history with the river. He has fly-fished there since he was old enough to hold a rod and learned from his grandparentsone an Eisenhower Republican, the other, a Reagan-hating liberalthat restoring the Klamath did not have to be a polarizing issue.

The first Republican to ever receive a 100 percent approval rating from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Atkinson hopes the film will help spur Congress to authorize the agreement—what he calls,  “the greatest conservation opportunity in America.”

Former Oregon state senator Jason Atkinson, right, recently made a documentary film that explores the history of bitter conflict over the Klamath and the unlikely coalition that's come together to restore it.
Parker Logan

High Country News: There are plenty of embattled rivers out there that you could have made a film about; why did you choose the Klamath River in particular?

Jason Atkinson: I grew up thinking that my responsibility was this river. My grandparents, who agreed on nothing politically, agreed about restoring the Klamath River. My great grandfather fished the Klamath during the Herbert Hoover era. Back then there was only one dam, but my family had records going back to the 1920s and we saw a drastic decline in the number of fish as more dams were built. The entire fishery very nearly ended in the ‘70s.

HCN: In the film you make the point that the Klamath can serve as a model for how to solve other natural resource conflicts in this country. What are the lessons that apply elsewhere?

JA: The first lesson is this: Whenever we have left people out of their own destiny through lawsuits, through dividing communities, the environment has never been healthy. So if you actually let people work together and be neighbors, you can heal these 100-year-old multi-generational problems—and you can heal the river.

Another lesson is that the purity test that the far right and the far left have is never going to work when it comes to settling natural resource disputes. So in terms of the Klamath, there was this idea on the far right that if you remove one dam it’s a precedent that you don’t want in the West because it’ll destroy farming. Even though the bottom four dams do nothing for agriculture. Then on the other side, you have the far left saying, if it’s not 100 percent the way they want, they’re going to oppose it. So there actually are some environmental groups opposing the agreement because farmers might actually get something.

Those two extremes don’t work. On the Klamath you have a model where it’s a triple net win—farmers win, tribes win, the environment wins and the utility isn’t taking it on the chin.

HCN: What do you want to convey in this documentary that’s missed in general media coverage of the Klamath?

JA: What happens is that people who know nothing about the Klamath have a pre-conceived idea that it’s right versus left, dams versus fish. The thing that the film points out that’s new, is that the whole (partisan) model doesn’t work anymore. What happened was a compromise. And if we can do it here—with two states, multiple tribes, and competing industries—we can do it anywhere.

HCN: But today’s political climate makes that kind of model look almost unattainable. Why is it that so many environmental initiatives have become lightning rods for partisanship?

JA: In my mind it was 1973 when the Endangered Species Act was passed—by a Republican no less. People had no idea what the unintended consequences of that would be. Ten years later, that Act was seen as a declaration of war on small communities across the country, and I would argue that that’s when partisanship really stepped in for the first time in the conservation debate.

The thing that frustrated me was that having grown up in agriculture, I know that every year, once harvest is done, all the farmers go fishing. Everybody does. So in my own mind, I couldn’t reconcile a narrative that makes those kinds of distinctions—and one that discounts an entire swath of Americans from the public land debate.

HCN: Is there a moment in the film that illustrates compromise in the Klamath communities?

JA: I interviewed Steve Kandra (a Klamath Irrigation Project farmer) for a long time and one of the questions I asked him was, “you go to church, what are you praying for?"  And he said, "well for a lot of years I was praying for the wrong thing: I was praying for victory over those Indians and that’s not the message.” That still gives me shivers.

Amy Cordalis, a lawyer and member of the Yurok tribe, brings in a salmon near the mouth of the Klamath River in Requa, California.
A River Between Us

HCN: And did you encounter anything behind the scenes that countered that optimism?

JA: We interviewed this one guy and he was a real cagey community leader. As soon as the cameras were off, he had a lot of bad things to say about “those Indians.” And to me, that was revealing. It made me pursue that underbelly of generational feelings that some of these folks had. He’s not in the film, but that negative experience certainly signposted a darker side to the conflict.

HCN: What in your mind was the pivotal moment in the battle over restoring this river that ultimately created the 2014 agreements?

JA: The key thing is that for over a decade 42 groups—many of which were once opposed—have held together. There was always something that could have blown them apart. The reason the coalition has held together has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with personal relationships.

HCN: Do you have any plans to return to politics?

JA: When it’s over I’m going to take a nap for six to seven weeks, and then I’m going to reacquaint myself with a fly rod. And then I’ll think about it. 

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.