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Conflict in Klamath

A battle over irrigation rights in Oregon becomes, for a time, the latest flash point for antigovernment activists.

The head gates that control irrigation waters at Klamath Falls, Ore., were not just the site of five months of protests by farmers this year against a federal ruling denying them irrigation water. They were also the focus, at least in some minds, of some particularly vivid fantasies of overthrowing the federal government.

In one imagined scenario, proposed in a hopeful e-mail from someone in the Southern Oregon Militia, a citizen bearing a white flag confronts an officer of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

This ambassador of peace, "backed up by over fifty heavily armed citizens surrounding the Head Gates, all with their precision sniper rifles and semi-automatic weapons brought to bear on the BLM officer and his men," demands that the BLM officer leaves immediately.

"The BLM officer sees the light ... or he and his men die right on the spot. ... All evidence and shell casing are carefully recovered, boot prints are obscured, tire tracks are obliterated, the Head Gates are opened, and the citizens go home to a quiet night with their families."

The conflict at Klamath Falls never got that far, although there were those who worried that it might. And it involved thousands of local residents who had nothing to do with antigovernment militias or their ideology.

But for a time this year, the battle of Klamath Falls was the latest flash point in a continuing, low-intensity war between activists of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement and workers and officials of the federal government. In the minds of some, the confrontation — pitting federal regulators against what was portrayed as just plain folks — had the potential to become another Waco, Texas.

"We are at war," roared former militia leader J.J. Johnson in his Internet publication, the Sierra Times. "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.

"In our minds, the most threatened species in the Klamath Basin is man himself. This may become one of the greatest rescue and re-supply operations ever — and more important than the Historic Berlin Airlift."

Blowtorches and Human Shields
The battle of Klamath Falls goes back to April 2001, when, after an extreme drought, the Bureau of Reclamation decided not to supply any water at all to the 240,000 acres of farmland in the Klamath Basin Irrigation Project.

What little water the bureau had left was to be kept in Upper Klamath Lake, to protect the habitat of the endangered suckerfish, whose population has declined precipitously in recent years. The decision enraged farmers, officials and even some local law enforcement officers who saw locals' livelihood hanging in the balance.

Most agreed the problem's root cause was a federal government that had promised too much water to too many groups. The Endangered Species Act strongly limits any government action that puts species at risk.

Yet according to some, the government had earlier also promised farmers irrigation water "forever" when it made Klamath Basin land grants between 1908 and the 1940s.

Further, in an 1864 treaty with the Klamath Native American tribes, the government guaranteed water and suckerfish fishing rights downriver in exchange for their land upriver. When making land grants, the government did not tell the farmers of the tribe's rights.

And as all involved learned this year, there isn't always enough water to go around.

The affected farmers, numbering more than 1,000, had seen reductions but never a complete denial of water. Projected to lose hundreds of millions of dollars from the decision, and very possibly their land and livelihood, they were understandably furious.

They mounted protests, organized round-the-clock vigils and, in May, held a symbolic "bucket brigade" of water from the lake to the canals that drew some 13,000 people. Four times in June and July, protesters forced the irrigation head gates open in defiance of the law.

Before federal marshals were sent to guard the head gates, protesters even used a chain saw and a blowtorch to open gates welded shut by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, creating a human shield as they did so to hide the identity of the cutters.

Protesters laid pipe and, for a time, siphoned a symbolic amount of water around the head gates and into the irrigation canals.

'Federal Agent Viewing Area'
The locals devised rather creative protests. They organized a "Klamath T Party," established a real cavalry with dozens of horses, and put up a sign reading, "Call 911 — Some sucker stole our water." They set a banner atop the fence separating the protesters from the marshals: "Federal Agent Viewing Area."

They won a giddy victory by convincing the driver of a local portable toilet supply truck, arriving at the head gates to deliver a unit to the federal marshals, to turn around.

Even local law enforcement supported the protesters. Calling the conflict a "federal issue," Sheriff Timothy Evinger stood by as protesters trespassed on federal land and illegally opened the head gates.

In uniform and surrounded by fellow officers at the head gates, Klamath Falls police officer Jack Redfield gave a speech, saying that if the water was not turned on, he saw "the potential for extreme violence, even to the extent of civil war."

Naming individual local environmental activists, Redfield warned, "It won't take much from [them] to spark an extremely violent response. I am talking about rioting, homicides and destruction of property."

Redfield was temporarily put on administrative leave following the comments; the environmentalists sued the city, calling his comments a threat.

As the controversy received national media attention over the summer, two Oregon congressmen introduced bills to amend the Endangered Species Act and to force the federal government to compensate the farmers for some $200 million in lost crops.

In the end, farmers received just $20 million in disaster relief and several million dollars from the state of California, which shares the Klamath Basin with Oregon. And for several weeks, Interior Secretary Gail Norton opened the head gates, allowing irrigation at one-seventh of capacity.

The Battle Goes National
The dispute over water revealed many of the political fault lines of the American West. While farmers raged, environmentalists and the Klamath tribes said they finally felt that their legal arguments had been vindicated.

"We know that livelihoods are at risk in the farming community," wrote Klamath Tribal Chairman Allen Foreman. "We would like to remind you that overuse of the water [above the reservation] has already severely damaged the livelihood of our families."

More than anything, though, the Klamath Falls protests fed the flames of far-right, antigovernment fervor. Militia activists, cursing the "U.S. Gestapo" in e-mails, volunteered to "fire the first shot at the feds."

One poster on the hard-line Michigan Militia Corps Wolverine's e-list wrote, "I know good and well that there are those of you who have access to airplanes and explosives. Common sense tells me that a nice little package dropped from the sky onto the gates that hold back the water will undoubtedly open the gates and let the water flow."

One man was arrested at the head gates for failing to appear in court to face illegal firearms charges; he claimed to be a "constitutional counselor" involved in "treason" charges brought in a pseudo-legal "common-law court" against Oregon public officials.

In August, alerted by a series of Internet postings, convoys of antigovernment protesters made their way through Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, California and Oregon and converged on Klamath Falls for a large "Freedom Day" protest.

Into the Shadows
Yet while antigovernment activists were trying to turn the Klamath fight symbolically into another Waco or Ruby Ridge, some locals worried that their cause was being hijacked by outsiders with different interests than their own.

"We've been contacted by the Freemen," said Klamath County resident Stan Thompson, referring to a well-known common-law group. "We don't need those jerks in here."

Today, the water dispute has not been solved, and negotiations inch along. Farmers have fiercely resisted federal offers to buy their land. They seemed more receptive to a plan presented in early September by the American Land Conservancy, a private group that proposed to buy land from some farmers to construct a new lake for water storage.

But on the eleventh of that month, the hijacked airliners that smashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon — turning the attention of a grieving nation to New York City and Washington, D.C. — also seemed to take the life out of the battle of Klamath Falls.

Days later, after most outside activists had returned home following the Patriot-organized convoys, local protesters decided that the federal government had enough problems on its hands and didn't need to have its agents tied up in Oregon.

The government and the protesters agreed to keep negotiating, and to end the demonstrations, at least until Jan. 1.

"We feel like we've been under siege here in Klamath, but we realize that the national emergency takes precedence over our cause," Bill Ransom of the Klamath Relief Fund told a reporter. "We're not antigovernment. I think you'll find some of the most patriotic citizens in the country in the farmlands."