Sucker Punched

Originally published in The American Legion Magazine Republished here by permission.  Many thanks, Jeff!
By Jeff Stoffer

No traffic will come.

So Jacqui Krizo kills the engine right in the middle of a paved county road, gets out and doesn’t bother to shut the car door. She walks to the shoulder and gazes across weed-blemished fields, parched in the hot August sunshine. She listens carefully, like a nurse for a lost heartbeat. "It’s dead," she says. "Normally, you couldn’t park right in the middle of the road, not this time of year, not here. The grain trucks would be going up and down. Now you don’t even hear the frogs or the crickets. It’s just dead."

Such was the condition of last harvest season when irrigation water was denied to farmers of the Klamath Basin, located in the fertile high country where Oregon and California meet. Fields normally verdant with potato, barley, oat and alfalfa crops had to be replaced by spindly, unmarketable cover-grains whose main purpose was to keep the soil from blowing off the face of the earth.

The year was ruined here because a federal court ruled last spring that the Endangered Species Act of 1973 plays like a trump card over longstanding government guarantees to provide water for farms. Around the 1,000-population town of Tulelake, California, those guarantees were specifically written into homestead patents issued to returning war veterans who have spent the last half-century building a community and keeping an economy afloat in the imprint of a former lake bottom.

Free Land for Veterans.

The Klamath Basin’s first wave of veteran homesteaders rolled in after World War I, when honorably discharged soldiers and sailors received preference over other applicants wanting in on the government’s offer of free, newly reclaimed, irrigable land. An American Legion post in Tulelake was formed to serve as a clearinghouse for negotiations between veterans and the government. Legionnaires worked to reduce by half the per-acre fees farmers had to pay back to the government to cover the cost of dam construction. Groups of homesteads were awarded five different times between 1922 and 1937, and another round was scheduled for 1942.

World War II delayed additional homestead movement until 1946 when the first of three pickle-jar drawings at the armory in Klamath Falls, Ore., determined who among that group of veterans would become landowners and who would not. The land lottery was viewed as a dual-edged act of postwar progressivism  – both a thank-you to Americans who helped save the world and an opportunity to populate the basin with capable young men and women eager to "prove up" on the small farms and pump vitality into the economy. Homestead veterans of the Klamath Basin warranted a cover story in Life magazine on Jan. 20, 1947, and the layout inside portrayed a quirky country-western rendition of the Great American Dream – with Mom, Dad and the kids in cowboy boots, jeans and hats, traipsing through the dirt; the house with a white-picket fence was instead a single-pane wooden barracks left over from Tulelake’s World War II Japanese Relocation Camp. For those veterans whose names were drawn – exclusively children of the Depression – the lottery was the chance of a lifetime. "Amid scenes of anxiety and joy, out came the names of lucky veterans who … are now established for life," the article observed.

Criteria for homestead eligibility included proof of military service during World War II, at least two years of experience in agriculture, at least $2,000 of personal capital, and "habits of honesty, temperance, thrift and industry." Winners needed to farm for five years in order to gain clear title. The old relocation-camp buildings were available to homesteaders willing to haul them off. Thousands applied for the three drawings between 1946 and 1949, and more than 200 homesteads were awarded in that span, planting a fresh crop of young families in the basin.

"It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me," said Eleanor Bolesta, who was a 23-year-old veteran of the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program when her name was drawn. Trained as an aviation machinist’s mate, she and her husband, Charles, a disabled Marine veteran, were barely making ends meet after the war. They were going through their savings and racking up  medical bills. Both had taken temporary jobs at a post office in central California when her name was drawn – one of only three women to receive a homestead in the program. "I never dreamed I would own land. It was considered very valuable land and was a wonderful opportunity for us, if we were willing to work."

The Decisive Act.

Fifty-two years after the last veteran’s name was drawn from the pickle jar – which holds a place of honor in the county museum – farmers of the Klamath  Basin returned to the national media spotlight. But the spring 2001 story was not one of postwar recovery. It was about betrayal. The same government that drained Tule and Lower Klamath lakes nearly a century ago to expose new farm land and build dams and canals to  water it, simply closed off the head gates. The reason: to protect two endangered species of bottom-feeding sucker fish in upper Klamath Lake and to help threatened coho salmon downstream, as well. It was a story that hit with tectonic might among those who live and work in natural-resource-dependent communities across America and fear they will be  the next victims of theEndangered Species Act’s single-species approach to ecological balance.

"They couldn’t have done us any more harm with an atomic bomb," says George A. "Pug" Smith, who served as a Navy ambulance driver in the Philippines during World War II. He was only 24 years old and full of hope when his name was drawn in the land lottery of 1947. "I felt very fortunate to get one."

Now, years after Smith and fellow irrigators fully paid off the irrigation project’s construction cost, he wonders if this is when – and how – the promise breaks. "If we can get the Endangered Species Act into perspective, it’ll save the country," he says. "If not, we’re down the tubes. It’s all politics. And you can never get the government to admit they made a mistake."

A Progressive-Era Showcase.

To drain 96,000 surface acres (about 13 miles by 15 miles) of lake and re-channel streams feeding those water bodies, the lower Klamath Basin represented bold engineering challenges – even for the indomitable spirit of the Progressive Era. After the federal government bought up property and acquired water rights from both states in the first decade of the century, excavating the dams and channels by hand and by horse through volcanic rock was no easy task. Rattlesnakes, mosquitoes, temperature extremes and the sheer cost of the project were daunting. Labor was hard to keep, especially when picking apples elsewhere often  paid better. In an essay for the Modoc County Historical Society, local historian Betty Lou Byrne-Shirley described the Klamath as "one of the most ambitious reclamation projects in the West during the first part of the century."

President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed balanced management of a fast-growing American West was achievable through smart farming and the preservation of specially designated natural reserves, once stated: "The object is not to lock up natural resources but to use them in a way that would increase their yield for the next generation. No wise use of a farm exhausts its fertility."

The Progressive Era – America’s quantum leap from the 19th to the 20th century – produced such innovations as laws to protect wildlife from illegal hunting and shipment. That was an issue in the early 1900s for Tule Lake, where unrestricted commercial hunters harvested wild birds for their plumes  alone or to supply high-end restaurants with exotic meat. Not coincidentally born around the same time were the nation’s first federal bird reserves, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The movement was all about places like the Klamath Basin, which ultimately became home to nine dams, some 400 miles of canals, dozens of pumps, drains, sumps, and ditches. But along with the irrigation and flood-control structures came three national wildlife refuges, the Modoc National Forest and Lava Beds National Monument. The region evolved into a showcase for the harmony that can be struck between progress and preservation. Tulelake, Calif., a community that sprang to life by virtue of the irrigated farms and wildlife refuges surrounding it, amply fulfilled the Progressive-Era vision for the 20th century.  But we’re not in that century anymore.

Decision Without Debate.

Veteran homesteader Marion Palmer remembers a man who came by his family’s farm every so often during the Depression. The man was selling suckers he had caught in upper Klamath Lake. "You were dang glad to get them," said Palmer, whose father, a World War I veteran, was granted a homestead southwest of Tulelake in 1932. "Times were lean. People did everything and anything they could to make money. And you either worked or you starved to death."

Times had certainly changed by 1988 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added short-nose and Lost River suckers to the federal endangered species list. Eight years later, the southern Oregon and northern California coastal coho salmon were listed as threatened species under the ESA. Those designations meant farmers, who only use about 2 percent of the downstream flow for irrigation, had to share their water more generously with the fish during dry times. Growers agreed to curtail irrigation during drought years to maintain minimum water levels in the lake and streams. But a lawsuit filed later by environmental, tribal and fishing groups produced a new biological opinion adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2001. That opinion called for even tighter restrictions on water delivery in the basin. So tight, in fact, that no water at all would be available for most of the basin’s farms and two of the wildlife refuges – even in a normal precipitation year. That opinion, and the water-level regulations that accompanied it, did not just tip the scales; it tipped them over. "We didn’t realize what was happening until it happened to us," said Bolesta, who relies on income from property she leases to a neighbor who got virtually no water last year. "Everyone was affected."

Irrigators appealed. But U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken denied their request for an injunction on the grounds that "… the law requires the protection of suckers and salmon as endangered and threatened species and as tribal trust resources, even if (the irrigators) disagree with the manner in which the fish are protected."

After the ruling, the Klamath Water Users Association issued a report questioning the kind of science in which "fish require well over 100 percent of all the water in the basin … Such requirements cannot be met by natural processes." The irrigators argued that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation does not have authority to re-allocate senior water rights from farmers to fish, that the water-delivery system is owned and maintained by the irrigators and not the federal government, and that the Klamath Basin crisis exposed enough deficiencies in the ESA that the law "should be reformed or discarded and re-drafted."

The biggest frustration in all of this, says Marty Macy – a former Marine fighter pilot and president of the Tulelake Growers Association – is that irrigators didn’t even have an opportunity to publicly debate the decision, question the science or strike a compromise. "Here we are in the 21st century, and the only plan we could come up with is zero delivery? We, to this day, do not know the process of how this opinion was arrived at. We were not at the table."

Approximately 1,400 family farms went dry while upper Klamath Lake filled to capacity last summer. Economic losses in the basin were estimated between $250 million and $300 million. "The worst thing it did was it ripped the heart out of our financial institutions," explained Macy, the son of a homestead veteran, who farms and sprays crops in the basin. "Confidence in what we’re doing was lost. How are you going to do anything if you don’t have any water?"

Without the usual influx of seasonal workers, main-street businesses were equally jolted by the decision. "This is an agricultural community," said Tony Giacomelli, owner of Jock’s Supermarket in Tulelake. "That’s the business here. The sense of community runs deep, and if this goes on one more year, the community will be bankrupt … It’s shortening people’s lives, just the stress of it. It’s a very emotional thing, very frustrating."

"We’re angry," Bolesta said. "How would you feel if you lost your job, your retirement benefits and four-fifths of the value of your home? Who knows what’s going to happen next? There won’t be any rural America left if this keeps up."

The Klamath Tea Party

Following the April 6 decision, thousands of farmers, ranchers, miners, loggers and national media poured into the basin to protest the decision or bear witness to the response. On May 7, some 18,000 people filled the streets of Klamath Falls, Ore., for a "bucket-brigade" rally where a container of water was filled from the upper lake and handed, one person to the next, in a human chain through the city before it was dumped into the main canal. Billboards with slogans like "CALL 911 SOME SUCKER STOLE OUR WATER" started popping up along the highways. One storefront in Tulelake proclaimed "Feed the feds … to the fish." A tent city of protesters set up camp at the head gate. A relief fund was established to help families in the most serious need.

The local sheriff’s department refused to intervene, and the FBI had to be called in, after protesters snipped through a fence and used a cutting torch to open a head gate that sent water pouring into the canal. At 78 years of age, Eleanor Bolesta was among those who broke in.

"It’s desperate times for desperate measures … it appears to me that (people) are trying to save their lives," Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger told The New York Times, which was among the national media that covered the crisis. The story dominated headlines in Oregon and northern California and appeared in almost all major national newspapers, radio and television news.

On Aug. 1, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton concluded that lake levels were high enough to release 75,000 acre feet of water – about one-sixth of the normal delivery – from the upper lake. The phrase "too little, too late" does not scratch the surface. Most of the crops were lost by that time, and it was by far too late to plant anything new. Some alfalfa came of it.

In the early fall, congressional leaders from both states weighed in with federal budget requests to compensate farmers devastated by the sucker ruling. But most of that push came after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and – with troops on their way to Afghanistan and New York City to repair – the nation’s budgetary focus could not have been aimed in a more different direction than the Klamath Basin. "I don’t think anybody is going to call this one a walk in the park," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said after he and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., sent a letter asking Congress for $126 million in aid for the basin’s farmers. Smith’s  chief of staff said the request for relief was a matter of trying "to make sure the farmers and ranchers are still there next year. This doesn’t do much for the long term."

"You don’t compensate a veteran who survived the Bataan Death March by telling him we’re going to pay you off so you can leave," said Macy, who, like many farmers in the basin, think there’s much more to this than saving the suckers. Macy said he believes basin farmers have been targeted for "rural cleansing" by environmental organizations, federal bureaucracies, Klamath and Yurok tribes who claim cultural and treaty rights to protect the fish, along with politicians who resist digging into the ESA out of fear they will be perceived as weakening it. "Once we took this issue and started to look at all the layers and layers and layers, it started to stink more and more," Macy said. "The hidden agenda is to turn Tule Lake into an Everglades of the West."

"It’s going to happen everywhere in the West," added Palmer, who served in Europe as an Army infantry man during World War II. "It’s going to happen until someone gets with hurt … when they see shelves go empty. That’s the urban society we live in today."

Jacqui Krizo – a horseradish grower who is both a daughter and daughter-in-law of homestead veterans – could not help but acknowledge the irony of it all. "These are the most patriotic people in the world," she said. "And here they are fighting their government."

Still, Krizo explained, the veterans who populate the lower Klamath Basin didn’t hesitate to hoist their flags in solidarity when America went to war last fall. And after the events of Sept. 11, tent-city protesters at the head gates began to break camp, vowing to return after the first of the year if balance cannot be restored in time for spring planting. They went into the winter hoping their elected officials will come up with answers, hoping their future isn’t permanently entangled in two different visions for the future of farming, not just in the Klamath Basin, but everywhere in America. "We knew how to co-exist with these species for many, many years," Macy said. "We may not be biologists or botanists, but we know our history … and we know that if we don’t stop it here, you’re next."

Jeff Stoffer, Managing Editor
The American Legion Magazine
PO Box 1055
Indianapolis, IN 46206