KLAMATH FALLS, Ore., June 16, 2001 - Not since the snail darter has a creature so infuriated - and inspired - conservatives around the country. The all-but-inedible, bottom- feeding suckerfish, which makes its home in a lake that feeds this normally fertile agricultural valley, has become the latest rallying cry in the battle to rewrite the Endangered Species Act.
A federal decision to cut off irrigation water in a year of record drought to protect the endangered suckerfish has left 1,400 family farmers and ranchers here seething in resentment and reignited a debate over the federal law that conservatives most love to hate.
The region has been without irrigation water since April 7, when the United States Bureau of Reclamation ordered the cutoff to guarantee maximum protection to the suckerfish and to the threatened coho salmon.
The silencing of the sprinklers has turned people's lives here upside down, with at least 200,000 acres of farmland parched and no clear idea when the water might flow again.
The farmers and their supporters have denounced what they call an unconscionable betrayal. And now - to an extent not seen since the battles over the spotted owl in the early 1990's and the snail darter before that - conservatives are embracing their cause as the best example yet of what is wrong with a law they say demands revision. Lawmakers are flocking to Klamath Falls to show common cause with its people, and conservative voices like The Wall Street Journal's editorial page are turning up the heat.
"This is ground zero in the debate over the Endangered Species Act," Representative Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon, said on Saturday, kicking off a field hearing in a fairgrounds hall where bleachers were filled with thousands of angry men and women who wore cowboy hats and boots and carried bitter, sardonic signs like one that read: "No water, no crops, no jobs, no farmers. Thank you, United States."
With a federal court having rejected pleas to order a resumption of the water's flow, Mr. Walden and Representative Wally Herger, Republican of California, have asked Gale A. Norton, the interior secretary, to convene the Endangered Species Committee. The panel, made up of seven cabinet-level officials informally known as the God Squad, is charged with weighing economics against extinction and has the power to override provisions of the law that promise primacy to the protection of listed plants and animals.
The group has considered such a request only three times before, in cases involving the whooping crane, the snail darter and the spotted owl. Only once, in the 1991 case of the spotted owl, has the panel authorized action that could further jeopardize a species, and in that case planned timber sales were ultimately dropped because of accusations of illegal lobbying.
The administration has not yet made a decision on the suckerfish request, but a top Interior Department official has held out some prospect for change, promising at Saturday's hearing that the administration would ask outside experts to review an opinion issued in April by the Fish and Wildlife Service that led to the decision to cut off the water.
The opinion was prepared by career officials at the wildlife service, which is headed by an acting chief because the new administration has not chosen its own. In her testimony, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, Ms. Norton's deputy chief of staff, said the water- level recommendations contained in that opinion had left the reclamation bureau, also still headed by an acting chief, no option but to order the water cutoff.
Congress is expected soon to approve an administration request for some $20 million in emergency aid to those most affected. But local officials estimate this year's farm losses attributable to the irrigation shutoff at $250 million, and neither the discussion of the aid package nor the other assurances did much to soothe the mood of a crowd that included men like Rob Crawford, 43, who sees the Endangered Species Act as a tool used by environmentalists and their allies in government for what he calls "rural cleansing."
"We're real people here, and we're being annihilated," Mr. Crawford said later, his voice choked with emotion as he drove a visitor in his pickup truck through his fields. In any other year, he said, they would have been rich and green with wheat, onions, barley, potatoes and peppermint. This year, with the irrigation ditches dry, the land is little more than cracked earth and weeds.
But as environmentalists like Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council point out, the region's lushness in what is really a high desert was always artificial, a product of the damming and diversion as part of the Klamath River project, which was completed in 1909. The federal government lured World War I and II veterans to the isolated region as homesteaders with promises of water in perpetuity. But the American taxpayer, Mr. Kerr contends, should not have to subsidize marginal farming forever.
Like most farmers in the country, environmentalists point out, farmers in the Klamath Basin benefit heavily from federal subsidies. A draft analysis being prepared for the Wilderness Society and based on figures from the federal Farm Service Agency put at $6.5 million the total direct farming subsidies last year in the area spanning the basin.
Along with representatives of other conservation groups, Mr. Kerr has drafted a plan that would have the federal government buy much of the basin's farmland and set it aside as a preserve, while paying premium prices to the farmers to assist in their transition.
Not surprising, though, that idea has offended many local people, who say they have little concern for the fate of the shortnose and lost-river varieties of suckerfish found in the Upper Klamath Lake. The suckerfish, listed as an endangered species since 1988, is also a perfect target for the conservatives who previously delighted in ridiculing the snail darter and the spotted owl, which at least had the advantage of being an appealing creature.
"If the government chooses to save the suckerfish, it must not make suckers of Klamath County," Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, said at a recent rally here.
Already, in towns like Klamath Falls, population 17,000, and Tulelake, Calif., population 1,000, businesses have begun to close and school populations have plunged by as much as 30 percent, reflecting an exodus of farm workers. Meanwhile, ranchers have begun to try to sell their sheep and cows, and local officials say business is good only at places like community mental health clinics and a food bank that has successfully appealed to grocery store chains for donations of hundreds of thousands of pounds of food.
"It's a bleak picture," said Tony Giacomelli, 46, the owner of Jock's Supermarket in Tulelake.
In rejecting the appeal aimed at reviving the water flow, Judge Ann Aiken of United States district court in Eugene, Ore., not only upheld the action by the Bureau of Reclamation but also seemed to set a high barrier for any change, ruling that the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act last year by supplying inadequate flows to the threatened coho salmon, which are found below the dam in the Klamath River.
The act was supposed to have been reauthorized in 1990, but efforts to do so have been blocked, despite a widening overall perception among Republicans and Democrats that elements of the law may be flawed. Figures as opposed as Ms. Norton and her predecessor in the Clinton administration, Bruce Babbitt, have complained that federal agencies have been unable to accomplish their task of identifying what species to protect.
Environmentalists tend to see the law as a success story in need of only small revisions, while many developers, timber owners and their allies have called for drastic overhaul. The Bush administration has been guarded in its stance; while Ms. Norton has opposed provisions of the act in the past, she promised at her confirmation hearings to uphold the law as it stands, and said it would be up to Congress to propose any revisions.
The hearing here on Saturday of the House Resources Committee drew only Republican members of the panel, and they were uniformly critical of the government for turning off the irrigation water.
"If this action holds, it will spread across the West," one committee member, Representative Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington, warned to applause.
Mr. Crawford, farmer and father of two, said he too wanted to see the act rewritten, to give a more equal weighting to what he called the often- sidelined interests of the "human species." But Mr. Crawford said he feared any changes would come too late for the Klamath Basin.
"We're the corpse," he said. "We're the casualty."
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