Page updated: 03/22/2002 09:13 PM
Conventional wisdom at the time that Bush won the Presidency was that the new administration would adopt a different stance towards environmental concerns, one that would more fairly support rights of access and economic/business interests. The essential failure of the administration to vigorously litigate in support of the Clinton roadless initiative indicated that the new administration was opposed to the initiative. Further, to the chagrin of environmental activists everywhere, Gale Norton was appointed as Secretary of the Interior. Greens were up in arms over her appointment because she was previously a lawyer with a legal foundation set up by former Secretary of the Interior James Watt. Watt had been the greens arch-enemy during the Reagan years and his foundation is very pro resource extraction and business oriented.
Not withstanding arguments in the press concerning the proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge the events of September 11 have largely pushed environmental skirmishes off the front page and Ms. Norton has, so far, more or less gotten a pass in terms of criticism from the left. There are, obviously, more important things for the government to worry about at the moment. But what of the new Republican environmental ethic? Has anything really changed?
Case In Point, The Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act has become something of a flashpoint and a dividing line between greens and wise use proponents. Few laws stir up more passion in the West. The activist community has latched onto the ESA as a tool to stymie development, access proponents, and other use-oriented interests. Conservatives, farmers, industrialists, and pro-access groups fume that the ESA has become a way for the environmentalists to enlist such obscure creatures as the spotted owl and the snail darter in an effort to lock up public lands.
In this installment of Land (ab)Use we will look at the Klamath Basin controversy, by way of case study, and its outcome, to see if, in fact, the new tone in the White House makes any difference "in the field".
The Klamath Basin Problem, the ESA, and Entrenched Interests on Both Sides:
Last summer push came to shove through the ESA and a series of events in the Klamath Basin of Northern California. The problem was not enough water and a small, ugly (but endangered) cause celebre—the sucker fish.
The water, which supplies both the sucker fish and hundreds of California farmers, starts in a series of mountain lakes and marshes, mostly in Oregon. These drain into the Klamath River, which flows southward into California and then west to the Pacific. In total there are over 700 legal claims to the water through the Klamath Basin Irrigation Project. The legal claims can be divided into four broad categories.
There are two species of endangered sucker fish that live in Upper Klamath Lake. Another officially endangered species, the coho salmon, spawns in the Klamath River. Migrating birds, enroute from Alaska to Central America, stop off in the marshes.
Three mountain tribes that historically fished for suckers now limit their catch to one ceremonial fish per year but they treasure this catch as a part of their culture. Further downstream the Yurok Indians still fish for coho.
In 1907 the Bureau of Reclamation began pumping water from the Klamath basin into an irrigation system which today nourishes 200,000 acres of rich but otherwise dry soil. Many of today's farmers are descendants of ex-soldiers who were invited to take part in lotteries for parcels of land.
Commercial Salmon Fisheries:
Salmon fishermen mostly operate near the mouth of the Klamath River but they need to ensure that the fish can get back upriver to spawn to maintain the viability of the fishery and their livelihood. Instream flows need to be maintained for the fish and the fishermen are often at loggerheads with both greens and farmers.
Even in wet years the needs of these four groups cannot be equally met. Typically, in past years, the Indians and the fishermen have given way. Years of damming, irrigation, over-fishing, and agricultural runoff have drastically reduced the number of salmon in the Klamath River. The source lakes have been depleted as more water has been drawn out for crops and many of the lakes are clogged with algae and polluted.
The winter of 2000-2001 was very dry and less than a third of normal precipitation fell in the mountains around the basin. Biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service judged that the water level in upper Klamath Lake was in danger of sinking so low that pollutants would kill off the sucker fish and on April 7th 2001 they turned off the irrigation system.
The effect was devastating for the farmers. $200 million worth of crops shriveled in the fields and was lost. Business in Klamath Falls, the region's largest town, suffered. Rallies were staged at the gates of the irrigation project and four times farmers broke in to set up siphons over the closed sluice gates. Protests were called off only after the September 11 events.
The National Academy of Science Study and the REAL Story:
After the situation cooled in the Klamath Basin, Secretary Norton ordered an enquiry into the problem by the National Academy of Science. The findings of the study are not yet released and are therefore not officially available. But many of NAS's conclusions have been leaked to the press. The study concludes that there is NO clear scientific evidence to support a link between water levels in the lakes and the numbers of sucker fish in them. The science of the sucker fish is not yet entirely understood and the coho salmon downstream are unquestionably under pressure. But the farmers should have gotten their water.
Conservatives have long claimed that scientists working for FWS are biased against business. The Klamath report comes after two researchers in Washington State were found to have made up claims that they had found lynx in the local forest. The fraudulent claim had been made in an effort to impose prohibitions on activities such as the use of snowmobiles.
Other studies reinforce the conclusions of the Klamath report. Many ecologists argue that the water quality has more to do with sucker well being than water quantity. One study points out that the five biggest declines in sucker fish populations recorded since 1970 have all taken place when the lake was at average depth or deeper.
The future applicability of the ESA boils down to two issues, one a value judgment and one fact based. I submit that most common sense folk would agree that the ESA has gone too far and has failed to balance protection of endangered species with rational use of public lands. But, to be fair, that is arguable and based on a person's individual values and bias. What is not, or should not, be subject to bias is the scientific data used to arrive at baseline estimations of the viability of endangered species populations. While it appears that Congress is not interested in overhauling the ESA and environmentalist groups continue to abuse the Act in the name of locking up public lands, perhaps the Klamath Basin episode is the first inkling that the Bush Administration, and Ms Norton, are going to be taking a much harder look at the science when making decisions affecting endangered species. Whatever one thinks about the usefulness of sucker fish, such decisions should be made with the best available scientific evidence. Such an approach, at first glance, hardly seems a revolutionary new conservation ethic. But it is a start.