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Jewish World Review July 12, 2001 / 21 Tamuz, 5761

Michael Kelly

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Evicted by Environmentalists -- EVERY so often, politics throws up a little conflict that, in its expression of competing values, has a large clarifying effect. One such consequential event is currently in play in a small town in Oregon called Klamath Falls.

The conflict is a familiar one, pitting ostensibly the interests of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act (in this case, the endangered shortnosed and Lost River suckerfish and the threatened coho salmon) against the interests of property-owning human beings. Spotted owls, snail darters: We have been here before. But not quite here.

All of the battles that arise from the Endangered Species Act are episodes in a continuing war of values that is fundamental to the nation. Whose values govern the use of this land? Is this your land or my land? This choice is often framed as between man and beast. It is better understood as between increasingly poor and powerless (on a national scale) rural voters and increasingly rich and powerful urban-suburban voters.

There have always been political choices that were framed as the competing interests of all God's creatures, great and small, and of all God's creatures with opposable thumbs. These choices were nearly invariably decided in favor of we thumbs. This is because most Americans lived in direct contact, and competition, with nature. Political decisions reflected the resulting values.

The first great sign of the new political reality was the Endangered Species Act. This law prohibited federal agencies from approving actions that could threaten the existence of protected species, even at the expense of human interests. The act has worked as intended, but it has been exploited by environmental groups whose agenda is to force humans out of lands they wish to see returned to a pre-human state. Never has this been made more nakedly, brutally clear than in the battle of Klamath Falls.

The Klamath Basin in southwestern Oregon is a vast, mostly flat, mostly arid area of fertile soil and marshes surrounding the Klamath River, which carries water from the Cascade Range to the Pacific. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 protected the Lower Klamath Lake as the nation's first waterfowl refuge. But the federal government also simultaneously supported development. In 1907 the government completed the Klamath Project, which drew water from the river to irrigate more than 200,000 acres for farming. The government lured homesteaders with promises of water forever. The homesteaders came, worked for generations and built the farms the government wanted them to build -- in accord with the values of the nation.

So things rested until this spring, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the usual expert pressure from environmental groups, ruled that this summer's diversion of water from the Klamath River would threaten the continued existence of the endangered suckerfish. This ruling, upheld by a federal judge, led the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Klamath Project, to shut off the water to more than 1,400 farms.

The decision caused what the farmers say will be at least $200 million in losses this year. If allowed to stand, it threatens more than 1,000 families with the effectively forced eviction (albeit paid) from land they have farmed for generations. The environmentalists say: excellent. This is precisely the point of the exercise. Andy Kerr, of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, has already drafted a plan for the government to buy out the farmers and turn their lands into a new preserve. Man, sniff the environmentalists, was never supposed to be here at all.

Once, the government urged man to risk his all in the Klamath Basin. That was then, this is now. "It was the social values of the time -- man over nature," says Jim Hainline, a biologist of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. "It worked for the purposes for which it was intended. Now we have a real change in the social values of the country. People are more urban, and they want to see the countryside more natural."

Yes, that is true. I am more urban myself, and I do want to see the countryside more natural. And I am not friends with anyone in the tiny minority of those who make a living off the land. So I suppose I may cheerfully join in the crushing of the Klamath Basin farmers. One day my neighbors and I will be able to get in our SUVs and go visit the new Klamath Nature Preserve in all its restored pristine beauty. I do hope there is someone left there to serve me a latte (I take it grande, skim, decaf).

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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