Klamath Dam Protests

In the Wake of Malheur, Klamath Dam Protests are Troubling

While Small, a Recent Protest of the Klamath Dam Removal Project Highlights Lingering Conflict

Klamath Dam by Will Jukes

The announcement of an unprecedented effort to remove four dams from the Klamath River was met with general enthusiasm, getting positive mentions from local conservationists as well as more mainstream outlets like National Geographic and the San Francisco Chronicle.  Including this site. But some farmers, ranchers and right wing activists were less enthused, an on April 19th gathered outside the Siskiyou County Courthouse to protest the deal.  The plan, which will free up over 400 miles of steelhead habitat in Northern California and Southern Oregon, will also drain the reservoirs that currently supply irrigation water to much of the surrounding area.  The government has guaranteed that water will be provided from other sources, but the protestors, egged on by conspiracy theories and militia rhetoric, were unconvinced.

I think it’s a dam scam, as this sign says, and I think that it is an Agenda 21 method on how to control all people,” said Debbie Bacigalupi, speaking to the crowd gathered around the courthouse.  Bacigalupi is a prominent conspiracy theorist who warns of “Agenda 21,” an alleged UN program to overthrow American democracy.  Key to that plot is leveraging Native American treaty rights to assert federal control over state governments – and, eventually, to abolish them.  The rally was also heavily promoted and attended by self-described “Patriots”, a few of whom would later be involved in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year.

The intersection of land use disputes and right wing ideology is alarming in light of Malheur, prompting the SPLC, an anti-hate organization, to report on the protest (which otherwise received little coverage).  Does that mean we need to worry about an impending armed standoff?  It’s tough to say looking only at Malheur, but that’s not the only tense confrontation between agriculture and the federal government.  In fact, a 2001 incident in Klamath Falls, Oregon nearly ended in open revolt.

The problem began when the Bureau of Land Management announced they would close off the channel that provided irrigation water from Klamath Lake.  The shutoff was necessary to preserve coho and suckerfish habitat, which was threatened by abnormally low lake levels.  Local farmers bridled at the decision, which came one month before the end of the normal irrigation period.  Five months of protests ensued,  with protestors defying the federal government by forcibly reopening the head gates that controlled the flow of irrigation water – four times.  When the government took the drastic step of welding shut the head gates, protestors cut them open with again with a blowtorch.  Only when federal agents were assigned to guard the headgates at all times did the protestors desist.  News headlines at the time reported relief that the conflict hadn’t escalated to outright violence.  Some conspiracy theorists and militia members, on the other hand, appeared unhappy that it didn’t.

“We are at war,” said former militia leader J.J. Johnson in the Sierra Times, essentially his blog. “We did not start this war but, having no choice but to wage it, let us wage it well. The forces against us claim they are trying to save fish. We are trying to save humans.”

That sentiment may be over-the-top, but it was echoed by locals unconnected with the militia movement.  “This is not about suckerfish out here, it’s a land grab,” said Klamath Falls businessman Bill Ransom, in an interview the Statesman Journal at the time of the Klamath Dam incident.

In the tense atmosphere post-Malheur, that’s some pretty scary stuff.  There are encouraging differences between now and 2001 – the government has done a better job making sure local agriculture will be taken care of, and the protest at Siskiyou lacks broad support.  But if we learned anything from the standoff at Malheur, it’s that anti-government groups are bolder than ever.  More importantly, the federal government has a serious image problem in the rural Western US.  And in fairness, it’s taken time for federal regulators to figure out to balance the competing needs of farmers, wildlife and the environment.  

In the long term, of course, conservation and sustainable development are the only way for farmers and ranchers to maintain their livelihoods.  In the meantime, though, their frustration has bred an audience sympathetic to far-right rhetoric.   It may not be enough now to ensure that those people are taken care of – at this point, the federal government may be engaged in an all out war for hearts and minds. What are your thoughts on the Klamath Dam?

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