Polluted waters divide Oregon

  • Banks of Lower Deschutes River in September 1986 were bare when grazing was allowed

  • The same stretch of river in October 1995, after grazing had stopped


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 West.

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 urban environment.

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 land.

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 streams lie.

"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 Cascades.

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 professor.

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 $500,000.

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 nearby.

Instead, they have resorted to direct mail, phone banks, door-knocking and single-column newspaper ads.

"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.

Ranchers have 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 frivolous.

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 accident.

"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 to listen."

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 4).

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 practices.

"It's the best $100,000 we ever spent," said Marlett.

Tony Davis reports from Salem, Oregon.

Note: this article is part of a feature package on ballot initiatives that includes these other articles:

- Has big money doomed direct democracy?

- An 'unfair, inflexible' bid to clean Montana's water

- Will Idaho voters derail nuclear trains?

- Colorado voters decide fate of 3 million acres

- Western hunters debate ethics tooth and claw

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