Reviving a refuge

  • National wildlife ranges in California and the Northwest

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Flock of Canada geese at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge

    Tom Boyd photo
  • Farmer Tracey Liskey at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

    Tom Boyd photo

TULE LAKE, Calif. - It goes by the unappealing name of "Sump 1-B," and it is a far cry from the vast lakes and marshes that covered much of the lower Klamath Basin at the turn of the century. Only inches deep, its murky water is too hot for fish.

Sump 1-B has a twin, known as Sump 1-A, and their 13,000 acres are all that's left of Tule Lake, which once spread across 100,000 acres along the Oregon-California border. It slowly disappeared early in this century as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built an elaborate system of canals, pumping stations and diversion dams.

Tule Lake, once a dynamic system fluctuating by as much as 80 feet in a year, was harnessed. Today, the basin's waters are under the thumb of the federal agency, and the diversity that once flourished here is limited to a postage-stamp-sized bit of habitat. Only 1 percent of the basin's water is siphoned off to refuge wetlands while cropland soaks up the rest.

During the fall migration, as many as 1 million ducks and geese are attracted to the remains of these ancient Klamath Basin lakes. But the basin water they need goes to farmers, who need irrigation water to grow crops in this semi-arid, 4,200 foot-high basin, where most of the 12 inches of annual precipitation falls as snow. Environmentalists say it's time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restored the basin's lakes.

"Wildlife refuges are for wildlife, yet they're being managed first and foremost for agriculture," says Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "Tule Lake, which was the flagship of our refuge system, today has become an embarrassment."

A compromised refuge

The assault on the lakes of the Klamath Basin began after passage of the 1902 Reclamation Act, which opened the door for federal draining projects. Even though President Theodore Roosevelt created the 53,600-acre Lower Klamath Refuge in 1908 - the nation's first waterfowl sanctuary - much of the refuge dried up after a new railroad line cut off its water source in 1921. The 39,100-acre Tule Lake Refuge was created in 1928, more than 20 years after much of it was drained and plowed up.

These are the largest of five national wildlife refuges now scattered across the 9,600-square-mile Klamath Basin, where less than 25 percent of the historic marshes remain.

There is another intrusion on the Tule Lake Refuge: Farmers lease more than 20,000 acres for crops such as barley, wheat, potatoes and onions. They also spread thousands of pounds of farm chemicals on these fields.

A 1995 Interior Department document cited a "history of pesticide-caused deaths of wildlife at the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath (national wildlife refuges)." A management review of the Tule Lake Refuge also called on the Fish and Wildlife Service to cut back or eliminate "crops not directly beneficial to waterfowl." These crops include onions and sugar beets.

The Oregon Natural Resources Council and others are also urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to ban pesticides on the refuges.

So far, the Fish and Wildlife Service has partly complied by implementing an integrated pest-management plan that will in time cut the amount of pesticides used on the refuges.

"We're not really promoting organic farming, but we're trying to promote integrated pest management. If you're going to raise crops on a commercial scale, you're going to need some chemicals," says Fran Maiss, the assistant manager for the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges. "If we tried to promote (organic farming), it wouldn't work. You can't make a conventional farmer into an organic farmer."

Nevertheless, the Fish and Wildlife Service says farming does not interfere with the agency's mission to provide a sanctuary for wildlife.

"We think there's a way farming and wildlife can coexist and be mutually beneficial," says Sam Johnson of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal legislation known as the Kuchel Act ensures that the number of acres enrolled in the farming program remains unchanged. Refuge managers say this limits their autonomy on refuge lands.

"We inherited a compromised situation and we're managing a compromised situation," says Maiss.

Wildlife comes first

Critics say the Fish and Wildlife Service hides behind the 35-year-old Kuchel Act to defend its poor wildlife management.

When Congress passed the Kuchel Act in 1964, farming grains such as wheat and barley on refuge lands was considered wise conservation policy. The waste grain left over after the harvest provided food for migrating waterfowl, and it was thought that wildlife management and agriculture were working in harmony.

But it's now clear that native aquatic plants, such as smartweed and red goosefoot, are far more nutritious to migrating geese and ducks.

Maiss says the refuge can bring back native plants that have declined over the years by more intensively managing water on the refuge. Without a dependable supply of water, however, the agency can't restore wetlands. Last spring, refuge managers announced that when water is in short supply, the refuge's irrigated croplands would only get what's left after its wetlands are filled. This policy has raised the ire of farmers, who fear that in dry years, they'll be left without irrigation water.

"I don't know if we'd even be in business without this water," says Tracey Liskey, an Oregonian who farms and raises cattle on 2,500 acres.

The refuge management insists wildlife will come first, agriculture second. Runoff from winter snows provided ample water to the Klamath Basin this year, but in dry years, farmers may receive less water. A draft environmental assessment of the new refuge water management plan is due out by September.

You can contact ...

* Wendell Wood, Oregon Natural Resources Council, 943 Lakeshore Drive, Klamath Falls, OR 97601-9107 (541/885-4886);

* Fran Maiss, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Route 1, Box 74, Tule Lake, CA 96134 (530/667-2231).

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