Lease land fight settled - for now

(Note: If the self-proclaimed, litigation-crazy 'environmental groups' truly cared about wildlife, they'd be telling the public the truth, which is what the following few words is: " ... agricultural fields provide food for wildlife ... ")

June 19, 2003

By Dylan Darling

H&N Staff Writer

Herald and News

Klamath Falls, Oregon

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Image:  - Rocky Liskey says losing lease lands would hurt his agricultural operation.

Rocky Liskey's family has been leasing land from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for farming since the 1940s.

That land is on the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, the nation's oldest for waterfowl.

Several environmental groups have been trying to stop the farming on both the Lower Klamath and the Tulelake refuges.

The latest attempt by the groups -- a lawsuit led by the Wilderness Society questioning the process the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used in giving leases to farmers -- failed last week.

It was the third suit in the past five years.

Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Garland Burrel ruled in Sacramento against 10 environmental groups that sued the service.

Bob Hunter, staff attorney for WaterWatch, one of the environmental groups involved with the lawsuit, said he doesn't think it makes sense to have "large scale commercial farming" on the refuges.

"I think our National Wildlife Refuges should be refuges for fish and wildlife and not refuges for potatoes and onions," he said.

But farmers, ranchers and federal agencies argue that the interests of wildlife and agriculture can be balanced.

For Liskey, the land is an important part of his operation.

He and his brothers lease two parcels, one of 160 acres and one of 120 acres, to complement their own 1,500 acres.

On the lease land they grow grass hay.

Without the lease lands their business would take a hit.

"It would reduce our ability to make a living as we are used to," he said.

Deb Crisp, executive director of the Tulelake Growers Association, said the lease lands are a big part of the Basin economy.

She said the program generates $2 million in revenue for the government and, in turn $15 million to $20 million in farm revenue for farmers, ranchers and agricultural businesses.

All the while the agricultural fields provide food for wildlife, she said.

"It's a tremendously beneficial program to the community and to the wildlife resources," she said. "This program is an example of how agriculture and wildlife can be compatible."

Jim Waltman, director of refuges and wildlife The Wilderness Society (TWS) in Washington, D.C., doesn't like the idea of refuge land being used for agricultural profit.

He said his organization is considering appealing the recent court ruling and has about two months to make a decision. "We were hoping that (the judge) would make Fish and Wildlife go back to the drawing board, but they didn't," he said.

Waltman said his group supports cooperative farming that is done on other refuges, where farmers don't pay to lease land. Instead, he said, they leave some of their crops to be used as food for the wildlife. He said farmers do that but in small amounts on the Lower Klamath and Tulelake refuges.

"What we are concerned with in particular is the kind of farming and the amount of farming," he said. "The farming is done to make money, not to benefit the wildlife."

Fran Maiss, acting refuge manager, said the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies are experimenting with flooding fields and creating seasonal wetlands with some of the lease lands.

"We feel we are doing things rather progressively," he said.

But the projects haven't been enough for the environmental groups.

"They constantly scrutinize our activities and if they feel we are out of line then we will be back in court," he said.

Maiss said the water situation in the Basin greatly affects how the refuges are managed. Water in the Basin goes first to suckers, then to tribal trust agreements, then to agricultural land and, last, to the refuges.

Being at the bottom rung of the ladder means the refuges won't always get enough water to make their wetlands wet. Having agricultural land means the refuges actually end up with more water to work with, Maiss said.

"The reality is that the water wouldn't be there to put into the wetland," he said.

A 1964 act of Congress specific to the two refuges allows the unique leasing program. In it, 25 percent of the land can be used for row crops, or onions and potatoes, while the other 75 percent can be used for cereal grains and hay.

Maiss said the act allowing the lease lands on the refuges was a compromise by the government because it had originally planed to allow the reclaimed land to be homesteaded.

Mike Green, lease lands manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the leasing program goes back to 1914. The Bureau manages the program for the Service because it specializes in water and farming.

He said the lands are vital to many farming operations.

"We have farmers that their whole operation is on the lease lands," he said.

He said there are about 60 farmers and ranchers who lease the land for an average of $75 per year. Lots of the land are leased to the highest bidder, with the winning bidder getting an option to lease it for five years.

In all, the lease lands are equivalent to 10 percent of the Klamath Project in terms of acres.

They make up 15,500 of the 39,000 acres of the Tulelake Refuge and 6,000 of the 50,000 acres of the Lower Klamath Lake refuge.

Hunter said it would benefit the project to have the lease land farming stopped because it would reduce the demand on the project by 10 percent.

"By phasing out that program we could manage the water better for wildlife and lower irrigation demand," he said.

The debate goes on.

Maiss said, with the recent court ruling, that the issue of farming on the refuges is "done in the short term," but expects there will be more lawsuits on the horizon.

There have been three lawsuits about the issue in the last five years.