A call to heed the wild

  • CRITICAL EYE: Bald eagle, Williamson River delta, Ore.

    from "Balancing Water"
  Environmentalists have long depended on photos of endangered landscapes to spur us into protecting wild places. The photographers hope that if they show us the wonder of these places, we will fight like mad to save them.

Tupper Ansel Blake and Madeleine Graham Blake, the photographers of Balancing Water: Restoring the Klamath Basin, want their photos to do the same. The basin straddles the Oregon-California border just east of the Cascade Mountains, and like many places in the West, it has been the site of intense battles over water in recent years. William Kittredge, well-known for his other books on southern Oregon, joins the Blakes in their efforts. He studies the region's history with the same critical eye as he did in Owning it All and Hole in the Sky, but with sympathy for the predicament in which basin residents find themselves, too.

"Balancing water," as Kittredge calls it, has always been tricky business in the Klamath Basin. Early last century, the Bureau of Reclamation and local farmers busily carved the landscape into units for irrigation, sometimes with disastrous results. Kittredge tells of an ill-conceived plan in the 1920s that dried Lower Klamath Lake. The Bureau hoped to create farms, but most of the lakebed's soil was unfit for agriculture. Soon after, dust storms and smoke from burning peat on the dry lakebed darkened the skies over Klamath Falls. Waterbirds that depended on the lake's marshes disappeared or perished from diseases that easily spread in the few remaining waterholes.

While the federal government and local people divided water among themselves, nature made it clear that all these lands were interconnected. DDT sprayed on surrounding farms and within wildlife refuges during the 1950s found its way into basin marshes, causing the deaths of many fish-eating birds. More recently, the lack of water and the poor quality of the remaining water have played a part in threatening or endangering Klamath Basin salmon, bull trout and the Lost River sucker.

Kittredge believes basin residents can solve these problems through consensus, though it will not be easy. The Clover Leaf Watershed Council and the Upper Klamath Working Group - just two of the examples he mentions - are hopeful signs that local people, the Indian tribes, environmentalists and government agencies can settle their differences outside the courts.

Kittredge has spent his literary career demolishing the cowboy myth and criticizing the imperial attitude held by many who settled the West. Yet he still holds strong affection for those who work the land and for rural people who are pushed aside by those who hold greater power beyond the mountains and deserts surrounding the Klamath Basin. Some of these residents must give up water to restore it. Whether they will do so willingly is unclear.

Kittredge tells a compelling story, but the Blakes' photos in Balancing Water will attract the most attention. The photos of wildlife and landscapes are magnificent, and unlike those in many books of this type, show people as often as wildlife. Whatever is decided about the basin's water, the photos suggest these people will live with the consequences.

Bob Wilson is a former HCN intern and a geography graduate student at the University of Washington.
High Country News Classifieds