In the Klamath Basin, Farmers and Ranchers are Becoming the Real Endangered Species, by Gretchen Randall

In the public mind, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects species close to extinction, such as the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon. It does not endanger family farms.

1,400 farmers in the Upper Klamath Lake region of Oregon and California beg to differ.

Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an opinion that, in light of a drought in the Klamath Basin, sucker fish and coho salmon could suffer if local farmers continue to receive irrigation water.1 The Bureau of Reclamation thus decided this spring that it would not deliver water to over 200,000 acres of farmland consisting of 1,400 family farms.2

Oregon Senator Gordon Smith (R) estimates that no irrigation water will mean a loss of $200 million to the local economy.3 Farmers will have no income and seasonal workers will be out of jobs. Even schools and businesses such as restaurants, car dealerships, hardware stores and their employees will be affected.

The loss of 1,400 family farms would be unfortunate under any circumstance, but this situation is especially poignant as many of these farmers are World War II veterans who were encouraged to farm in the Klamath Basin by the federal government, which promised them water rights.4 But, as a result of the ESA – enacted in 1973 to “conserve” species of animals and plants that were listed as “endangered” or “threatened,” and lawsuits under it by environmental activists5 – a judge has concluded that “Congress [made] it abundantly clear that the balance has been struck in favor of affording endangered species the highest of priorities.”6

Paul and Gertrude Christy came to the Klamath Basin region after Paul served in World War II, attracted by the federal government’s offer. The Christys moved into an old Army barracks and began farming just 70 acres. Eventually, they became one of the area’s major horseradish suppliers. Paul Christy recently told CNS News: “In the dry years we always shared our water with the fish and the Indians. I don’t think any fish died. The people who passed the Endangered Species Act had a good idea, but now it’s being used as a club against the farmers.”7 He added that this year’s crop has been planted but, unless they get water by July, there will be no harvest this fall.

Across the country, similar cases pit the ESA against the livelihood of ordinary Americans. Most are not settled quickly, inexpensively or without great hardship. Representative Wally Herger (R-CA), whose district includes part of the Klamath Basin, is right in saying that, under present law, “Once an animal or fish species is ‘listed’ its needs come first – before the rights and livelihoods of the American people.”8

Herger complains that it is possible to protect the fish in the Klamath Basin without harming the farmers.9 A top Department of Interior official concurs, saying the study used to defend the cutoff of water to the farmers lacks “credibility.”10

Frustrated by the loss of water, farmers have recently opened headgates to irrigation canals. Federal officials reopened them after the local sheriff refused to intervene against the farmers. Bureau of Reclamation officials have since asked federal marshals and the FBI to help them keep the headgates closed.11

Only Congress can fix the ESA. But rather than tackle the issue, Congress is considering $20 million in financial aid.12 Even if the aid is approved, it would hardly begin to compensate for the losses being suffered.

Rather than spending tax dollars to mitigate the damaging effects of one of its own laws, Congress should amend the ESA to add protection for endangered farmers and ranchers. It could prohibit any government agency from taking action that diminishes the value of private property or require that compensation for damages be paid. Congress could also require an independent scientific review of all proposed listings of threatened and endangered species as well require as a public comment period for the implementation of new endangered species listings. It could even provide incentives to landowners to reward them for protecting a species, a policy that would benefit everyone.

Such changes might not come in time for the farmers of the Klamath Basin. But they might save others from sharing their fate.


Gretchen Randall is the Director of Energy and Regulatory Affairs of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 


1 Stuart Leavenworth, “Interior Official Questions Decision on Klamath Water,” Sacramento Bee, June 15, 2001.
2 “Klamath Basin Water Crisis,” fact sheet from the office of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), downloaded from the Internet at on June 22, 2001.
3 Pat Taylor, “Senate Stalls Federal Aid for Beleaguered Klamath Farmers,”, Alexandria, VA, downloaded from the Internet at http://www.cnsnewscom/ViewPolitics.asp?Page=\Politics\archive\20010626c.html on June 27, 2001.
4 Pat Taylor, “War Vets-Turned-Farmers Feel Like Suckers in Water Rights Battle,”, May 21, 2001, downloaded from the Internet at\Nation\archive\200105\NAT20010521c.html on May 23, 2001.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 “Government bankrupting Klamath Basin Area,” speech by Represenative Wally Herger (R-CA) in the U.S. House of Represenatives, May 2, 2001.
9 Ibid.
10 Leavenworth.
11 “Farmers Force Open Canal in Fight with U.S.,” New York Times, July 6, 2001.
12 “House Approves $20 Million in Aid for Klamath farmers,” Sacramento Bee, June 21, 2001.

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