Unlikely alliance?

  • Jonathan Thompson

  High Country News, like everyone else who covers the West's environmental issues, loves "unlikely alliances." We're delighted whenever chardonnay-sipping Sierra Clubbers from Mill Valley fight on the same side of a cause as Budweiser-swilling elk hunters in Idaho. We love writing about what happens when surly miners join forces with grassroots greens, partly because these are some of our rare "good news" stories, but also because we think they surprise our readers. Witness the spate of stories in recent years about the "surprising" partnership of the greens and the hook-and-bullet crowd in fighting gas and oil drilling in wild places.

Hunters and ranchers want to save forests and deserts, too? Wow! That's almost as crazy as enviros drinking Coors!

But is anyone really shocked by it nowadays? As much as I love these stories, they're hardly new. In fact, I can't think of one successful conservation effort that did not include so-called unlikely partnerships. Consider Teddy Roosevelt, who was a predator hunter and national park establisher, all wrapped into one.

I've seen miners take a leading role in river cleanup efforts. A quarter of a century ago, a citizens' coalition pushed for the formation of the 400,000-acre Weminuche Wilderness in southwestern Colorado. That coalition was hardly monolithic: There were Democrats and Republicans, conservationists, hunters, outfitters, anglers, miners and quite a few farmers and ranchers. Fact is, most "unlikely alliances" aren't unlikely at all.

In this issue's cover story, however, Matt Jenkins spins a fascinating tale about what is, in some ways, a genuinely surprising alliance: Indian tribes on the Klamath River are working with the region's farmers on a groundbreaking agreement. It's startling because those tribes and those farmers have been fighting bitterly with each other for years.

At the same time, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised. After all, the tribes and the farmers have one fundamental thing in common: They rely on the river for their food and their livelihoods. While those needs have competed with one another in the past, they are also what kept these guys at the bargaining table until an agreement came together.

It wasn't easy. Before the farmers and tribes could hold hands, they both had to endure a lot of pain -- massive fish kills, dried-up fields and the tedium of the negotiations themselves.

Perhaps that's the lesson here: Unlikely alliances don't happen by magic, they take work. Sometimes the situation needs to become so dire that the two sides have no other choice but to get along. Then they can find a bit of common ground, and their reverence for and reliance upon the land will finally win out over age-old animosities. And then they will discover that their alliance was never that unlikely after all.

**


Jenkins' is hardly the first or last word High Country News has or will publish about the Klamath. To see our previous coverage, please check out our free archives on www.hcn.org. And while you're there, look at the Online News section and the Goat Blog for all kinds of Web-exclusive content.
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