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Know the West

Klamath story misrepresents the ESA


Dear HCN,

Rebecca Clarren's article on the Klamath River Basin (HCN, 8/13/01: No refuge in the Klamath Basin) gives readers the most in-depth portrait of the real people engaged in the Klamath water conflict - farmers, Native Americans and commercial salmon fishermen - that has appeared to date in the national, regional or local press.

The sympathetic tone and bits of personal information reported for Tim Griffiths, Don Russell, Jim Moore, Troy Fletcher, and Paula Yoon stand in stark contrast to the manner in which the environmentalists quoted in the article are treated. We learn, for example, that Griffiths grew up in the Basin and that Russell and Moore drink sun tea at a kitchen table. The portrait focuses on their humanity - feelings of betrayal and the back-against-the-wall helplessness, "we tried to work with them" attitudes. Fletcher and Yoon are also real people in the article. We are given personal facts about them that connect them to the landscape.

In contrast, your quotes of environmentalists appear to come from abstractions - there is no portrait, no sympathy. A lawyer is quoted first, Wendell Wood is not someone who was forced to leave K-Falls but simply "of the ONRC." Don Barry and Jim Waltman are quoted but rather than a sympathetic portrait their names are misspelled.

Even Robert Wilson's history box presents tribes as "gaining political power" but environmentalists "criticized federal irrigation projects everywhere."

The long struggle of indigenous environmentalists to get not only federal agencies and politicians but even our own state and national organizations to take notice of the Klamath and support our efforts to reform water management is ignored.

A coincidence? Maybe. I do not believe Clarren wrote differently about the environmentalists intentionally. Rather I believe the different treatment flows from a subtle but pervasive cultural attitude in the rural West and at HCN which wants to see all environmentalists as outsiders or interlopers.

Another example of HCN's anti-environmental bias is contained in the "You can contact ..." box: Not one of the environmental/coalition members was listed.

While the casual reader perceives the article as balanced, the subtle bias in treatment and sympathy works to reinforce HCN's view of the Endangered Species Act as a law in need of reform. This has prevented you from getting what I believe are the most important themes:

    1. That the Endangered Species Act has been the tool which made it possible for Native American tribes with the best water rights in the Basin to actually get some of the water that legal and political opposition had denied them for over 100 years. The ESA as a tool to redress social injustice - what a concept!

    2. That here is another example of where stonewalling change - the conscious strategy of irrigators and their allies - created a crisis that could have been avoided.

    3. That conservationists, tribes and fishermen have formed a coalition which, with the help of the ESA, has been able to break the iron triangle of water: the Bureau of Reclamation, irrigation/ag interests and local politicians - which had over-allocated the water, kept the wildlife refuges in a subservient (dependent) position, and frustrated tribal attempts to realize water rights affirmed by the Supreme Court.
Your Klamath Basin story could have been a history lesson illustrating how the ESA really works and an example of the changes that all Western river basins must work through. The article could have been about balancing the waters and the equities, and about a river system that could actually be restored through use of all tools - including the ESA. Instead your article was an apologia for "reform" of the ESA and a paean to "the Lords of Yesterday."

Felice Pace
Etna, California

Felice Pace works for the Klamath Forest Alliance and is co-chair of a Coalition for the Klamath Basin. He has lived in the Klamath River Basin for over 26 years. For more information contact the Alliance at 530/467-5405 or at www:klamathforestalliance.org.