A river, a bird and a flock of untruths

  Geez, all those punches must sting.

In Nebraska and its neighboring Plains states, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and other employees are again taking shots right and left from critics. It would be one thing if those blows were legitimate - almost all of them, however, hit below the belt.

A recent Fish and Wildlife decision designated critical habitat for the threatened piping plover along three Nebraska rivers, including the Platte. After the decision was announced, the critics began to howl and the scare tactics began.

Nebraskans First, a group of politically active central and western Nebraska irrigators, has been among the opposition's strongest voices. The group has, among other things, accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of instigating a "land control program."

Inside and outside of Nebraska, the group blames the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (and other federal agencies) for:

- Shutting off irrigation water in Oregon's Klamath River Valley during a drought to protect the endangered suckerfish and threatened coho salmon, an act that supposedly "ripped the local economy apart,"

- Planting tufts of hair from a captive lynx in two national forests in Washington "in hopes of tricking the public into believing critical habitat for the Canadian lynx needed to be designated," and

- Trying to gain control of the entire Platte River -- no small feat since the river spans the width of Nebraska from Wyoming and Colorado on the west, to the Missouri River on the east -- about 500 miles worth.

It's time for folks in Nebraska, and elsewhere, to dig a little deeper.

On Point No. 1, the Klamath controversy: Detractors want us to believe that this was a simple case of farmers vs. fish. It makes good headlines and can often persuade Midwesterners - many of whom are members of the anti-government and anti-environment faction - to lean in one direction without investigating. Here are some real truths:

Agriculture is not a major player in the Klamath-area economy. A study found that while farmers there use up to 95 percent of the surface water, they contribute to less than 1 percent of the area's economy. The Klamath problems are the result of a century of misguided federal government policies, not the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other government laws and agencies.

There is not nearly enough water in the Klamath to serve all interests. Because of water withdrawals for farmers, more than 90 percent of the salmon population has died off. That includes the recent fish kill of up to 30,000 chinook. An agency staffer's recent whistleblower complaint may tell us more about pressure to shift more water to irrigators.

An estimated 7,000 commercial fishing jobs have been lost in the past 30 years because of agricultural diversions and other mismanagement. Eighty percent of the area's wetlands have been drained, destroying vital habitat for migratory birds. Agricultural chemicals have leached into and polluted the Klamath basin and area wetlands.

On Point No. 2, the lynx controversy: This story proves exactly how long a falsity can linger. Two separate studies have totally exonerated Fish and Wildlife and Forest Service employees of any wrongdoing whatsoever. The Department of Interior and the General Accounting Office have vindicated the biologists. This is a story that originated in the Washington Times earlier this year. The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal were among the media dispersing the myth. The story was then jumped on by anti-government and anti-environmental critics before any fact-finding was done.

As it turned out, the story and follow-ups were chock-full of factual errors. In reality, no lynx hairs were ever "planted." Controlled samples were submitted to test the accuracy of federal wildlife labs. There was nothing deceitful about it.

Outside Online, a Web site for outdoorsmen, has called the incident "a case study in media-amplified demagoguery." The media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) has ripped the Washington Times for its "hoax" story. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has called the reporting "a disgraceful saga of ugly politics fueled by shoddy journalism."

Still, amazingly, Nebraskans First has a link to the Times' "hoax" story on the lead page of its Web site. On Point No. 3, the Fish and Wildlife Service's purported agenda to control the Platte River: There is not now, nor has there ever been, any such agenda.

In my numerous interviews and other relations with Fish and Wildlife employees over the past two decades, I have found them to be some of the most dedicated and open-minded people around. Yet they are often the target of relentless critics looking for someone or something to blame when things don't go their way - such as designation of critical habitat for a threatened shorebird.

The Platte River is important to a lot of Nebraskans. Communities, wildlife and farmers need its water. It is a shared treasure, an ecological wonder, a historical jewel. Because of that, the Platte and those who seek to steward it deserve much better than the deceptions that some groups choose to perpetuate.

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a reporter in Grand Island, Nebraska.

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Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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