PORTLAND, Ore. - One side has a punchy message: that cows and clean streams don't mix. The other side warns that fencing cows off from hundreds of miles of streams will be a worse failure than the Great Wall of China.
At stake is the
Oregon Clean Streams Initiative, one of the toughest sets of
grazing restrictions ever seriously considered in the
The battle could shape the future of
grazing in this state and become a model elsewhere. It's a test of
environmentalists' ability to overcome overwhelming official and
media opposition, and of ranchers' ability to succeed in an alien
Commonly known as Measure 38,
the proposal would ban livestock from up to 870 polluted stream
segments, if livestock cause the pollution by defecation or by
mowing down streamside trees that keep water cool and livable for
salmon. Public-land cattle would have to be off salmon-bearing
streams by January. Other ranchers would get 5-to-10 years to
develop water quality plans if they want to keep cattle on their
The fight's nerve center is Portland, one
of the country's most liberal and environmentally conscious cities.
Critics dub it, "The People's Republic of Portland." It's also the
hub of most of the state's population base, far from eastern and
central Oregon, where the majority of Oregon ranches and troubled
"This campaign will be won or lost
in the Portland metropolitan area," Paul Phillips, a consultant for
the ranchers, told the Oregon Cattlemen's Association at a
convention last month. Phillips added that only some 14 percent of
the population lives in the rural east side of the
It was no surprise, then, that a
mid-September poll by the Oregonian and a Portland TV station found
the initiative 22 points ahead. The proposal even had a narrow lead
in rural Oregon.
But since the campaign had
barely started back then, nobody knows how it will turn out.
Ranchers have the backing of the state's three leading Democratic
politicians: Gov. John Kitzhaber, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Portland
Mayor Vera Katz. They also have on their side the inherent belief
among many residents, according to Phillips, "that farmers and
ranchers are right, and have a right to be there."
Supporters have won endorsements from 70
conservation groups and numerous prominent economists and former
state fisheries biologists. They've got a good ballot position,
next to a popular proposal to expand Oregon's pioneering bottle
bill, and a history of polls showing strong concern about water
quality in the state.
The outcome may hinge on
whether voters see the Measure 38 dispute as a fight over clean
water, or over how much regulation is needed, said Bill Lunch, an
Oregon State University political science
Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts says
opponents would be misjudging the issue if they thought there is
not a concern about water quality. "But the supporters," he adds,
"would be misjudging the issue if they thought that people had
thought it through and decided to support it for sure."
The dynamics of the fight can be seen clearly on
the Oregon map that ranchers used to chart their fund raising. In
mid-September, the map showed they had raised roughly $205,000 in
12 rural southern and eastern Oregon counties. They fetched only
about $70,000 from the remaining 24 counties, mostly in Oregon's
congested northwest corner, and $895 from the county that includes
Portland. By mid-October, the ranchers had raised more than
$300,000 total, and expected to raise
That's far more than the $50,000
environmentalists will spend on the fall campaign, on top of
$100,000 they spent to get the measure on the ballot. Money
troubles kept them from running what they thought would have been a
killer ad: a dead salmon pictured in a barren stream with a cow
Instead, they have resorted to direct
mail, phone banks, door-knocking and single-column newspaper
"Measure 38 is the first real step in
restoring the health of Oregon streams that have been abused by
livestock for decades," their ad says. "It would help keep cows
away from the most polluted waterways, allowing them to recover.
Which is vital if you're a salmon or someone who drinks water."
To make their case, environmentalists point to a
1988 state survey that concluded cattle were the greatest source of
water pollution on 9,300 miles of stream. Environmentalists and
state officials disagree over the reliability and significance of
this survey. But state officials agree that livestock are a huge
problem on central and eastern Oregon streams and that ranchers
must change their ways. The two sides disagree over whether Measure
38 is the best tool to do that.
hammered hardest at a provision - taken straight from the Clean
Water Act - allowing citizens to sue to get livestock off streams
and to recover attorneys' fees if a suit succeeds. Ranchers could
recover fees only if a judge found a suit
Lindsay Slater, vice president of the
cattlemen's association, contends that if an elk breaks through a
fence near a stream, a rancher could still get sued and be forced
to drive 30 miles to tell a judge that the problem was caused by an
"You'll never win on clean streams,"
consultant Phillips told the cattlegrowers. "Everyone wants clean
streams. But when you focus on lawsuits and attorneys, people start
In reply, Bill Marlett, the Oregon
Natural Desert Association director who wrote the initiative,
pointed out that only 22 Oregon Clean Water Act lawsuits have been
filed since the law took effect a generation ago, so ranchers
shouldn't worry about frivolous suits. That number could increase,
however, now that a federal judge has expanded the applicability of
the Clean Water Act to federal grazing permits (see story page
But even if the measure fails, Marlett said,
the effort will have been worth it. He recalled that the initiative
drive grew out of a 1993 environmentalist effort to get the
Legislature to pass a law regulating agricultural practices.
Although the drive failed, it was influential in pushing the state
and ranchers toward agreeing to spend up to $40 million every two
years on a previously unfunded state program to improve those
"It's the best $100,000 we ever
spent," said Marlett.
Tony Davis reports from