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August 15th, 2001 Patty Wentz | News Stories
 

THE GOOD AMERICANS

IS KLAMATH FALLS THE WELLSPRING OF A NEW SAGEBRUSH REBELLION?

     
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John Stokes of Kalispell, Mont., has never been to Klamath Falls, but he's going there soon for a party. He is even bringing a gift that's too big to wrap: a 10-foot wooden swastika, painted green. When he gets to K-Falls, he is going to set it on fire and proudly watch it burn.

"People have to realize this green movement is based on Nazism," says the conservative radio talk-show host. "We have no notion of letting this country turn into a Third Reich."

Stokes, and probably thousands of others, will be in Klamath Falls on Aug. 21 for what is being called "Freedom Day." People from Malibu, Calif., Elko, Nev., Walla Walla, Wash., and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, are coming in caravans, one called the "Convoy of Tears."

Many call themselves "Good Americans," "Patriots" and even "Revolutionaries," and they are coming to support farmers in Klamath Falls whose irrigation ditches have been left empty in the face of the driest winter on record. They will bring money they have raised at spaghetti feeds and auctions. They will bring seed from their own farms. They will bring feed for Klamath livestock donated along the way.

They are also bringing their righteous anger at what they consider the tyranny of the U.S. government. These are the farmers, the loggers, the small-business owners, the off-road vehicle drivers, the hunters, the fishers, the landowners and the full-time agitators from the Bush country of the rural West.

They are the pissed-off right wing, and Klamath Falls is their latest last stand.

Klamath Falls as it is shouldn't even exist.

It should, instead, be a patch of parched prairie and marshland scenery along Highway 97 halfway between Bend and Redding, Calif. There should be no turn-of-the-century brick buildings on Main Street, no grange hall, no Dutch Brothers coffee stand.

Klamath Falls is there, however, because it had two things going for it: the lake and the federal government.

The Upper Klamath Lake sits on the north end of town, and it is big. Arvydas Sabonis big. At about 22 miles long, it is the largest lake in the Northwest.

In 1906, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spent $50 million to "reclaim" the desert and build more than 1,400 miles of canals and drainage ditches weaving through the lakes and rivers of the Klamath Basin, a flatlands that extends south into California. The Project, as it came to be known, also included diking off wetlands and soaking the desert until an agricultural oasis was created.

Construction took decades, but even before it was finished the government began luring farmers to Oregon. From 1908 until after World War II, the feds granted parcels to more than 600 veterans of the World Wars.

Thanks to the project, the land grants and the sweat equity of the farmers, a community took root.

Over the decades, Klamath Falls has gone through boom and bust. About 60,500 people live in Klamath County. This is cattle, potato and alfalfa country. In recent years, blue-green algae from the opaque lake has been harvested and sold as a food supplement. A once-thriving timber industry is now all but gone, but over the past decade Klamath Falls has proclaimed itself the "Silicon Basin." Oregon Institute of Technology offers bachelor degrees in engineering and other information-age disciplines. The town has the second-largest airport in the state, a world-class resort with a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, and some of the best fly-fishing in the state nearby.

But as the Klamath Indians will tell you, what the government giveth, the government taketh away.

The Upper Klamath Lake is more than just a sprinkler system for farmers. It is also home to an endangered species that couldn't have a more unfortunate name: the sucker fish. The fish are a traditional food staple for the Klamath Indians of the area, and in 1988 the tribe sued for federal protection of the fish under the Endangered Species Act. The lake also feeds the Klamath River, where the endangered Coho salmon make a meager run. The ESA, signed by President Nixon in 1973, was designed to save species like the bald eagle that at the time were declining in rapid number thanks to the pesticide DDT.

The Indians, environmentalists and federal biologists argue that for decades too many farmers were taking too much water out of the lake during drought years, and that's why the sucker fish were dying.

Fed by the annual snowpack from the headwaters near Crater Lake National Park, the Upper Klamath Lake functions like a massive holding tank, and if too little water comes in and too much goes out, the lake level declines. So, under the auspices of the ESA, the feds established a minimum lake level. Twice during the 1990s, conditions forced the Bureau of Reclamation to reduce the water released to farmers in order to keep enough water for the fish. Still, the suckers kept dying.

So the Portland-based Oregon Natural Resources Council threw a hardball. The group sued the government and won, arguing that there still wasn't enough water being left in the lake to save the fish. In 1998, the feds issued a new plan (called a biological opinion) that called for higher lake levels. At the time, everyone knew that the next dry year could mean war.

Last winter, Mother Nature must have been ready to see some fireworks, because by the spring solstice there was only one-fifth of the normal snowpack. On April 6, 2001, otherwise known as "Black Friday" in Klamath, the federal government announced that there would be no water for the Project.

Gavin Rajnus is a quintessential Klamath farmer. His great-grandfather was a Czech homesteader given farmland in the basin in 1911.

Three months after Black Friday, on Independence Day, Rajnus went from being a Klamath Falls potato farmer to an anti-government activist.

Rajnus is not, as he would phrase it, a wing-nut. He's 33 years old, tall and thin, with a wry smile, a level gaze and a baseball hat emblazened with WWJD. He got an agriculture degree from Oregon State University, then returned to farm with his cousin on 400 acres. He has some wells, but a third of his water comes from the lake through the irrigation canals built by the feds 95 years ago.

Rajnus has no storehouse of weapons to protect his family against jack-booted thugs. He doesn't cruise the Internet looking for conspiracy theories. But this year, the Rajnus business--growing seed potatoes to sell to other farmers in the basin who grow spuds for market--dried up because of the lack of water.

He had never involved himself much in water issues up to that point, and he paid little attention to the mediation discussions going on in Eugene over how to allocate the water among the Indians, environmentalists, state and federal governments, and farmers. All he knew was that he didn't have water.

In July, he went to a rally held near the head gate of the irrigation project. The gate is a concrete dam that controls the flow of the water from the lake to the irrigation canals. By then the gates had twice been opened illegally by protesters, and the dusty parking lot near the chain-link fence that surrounded it had become the gathering place for frustrated locals.

He arrived, he says, shortly after protesters had used a cutting torch on new locks the BOR had installed to protect the gates.

While Rajnus was there, some men invited him to a meeting being held later that week by a local businessman he won't identify. Not knowing what to expect, he went. At that meeting and in the days that followed, he says, the scales fell from his eyes.

"The people were of sound mind and body," he says, "and I listened to everything they said. It was kind of a wake-up call to me to understand that this goes way deeper than the Endangered Species Act and the sucker fish. There are a lot of evil things going on right now."

Rajnus had become a member of the latest Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement with a proud history in the rural West, where most land is publicly owned and managed. There is no central organization or charismatic leader. It erupts whenever people feel the federal government has gotten out of hand. Their outrage carries echoes of Ruby Ridge and Waco--but instead of machine guns they carry press packets and media contact numbers. They raise signs, not arms.

From the Good Americans, Rajnus learned about the high salaries, hyperbolic scare tactics and expensive direct-mailing campaigns of the national environmental groups. He learned that children are being brainwashed in schools by innocent-seeming Earth Day celebrations, when www.earthday.net carries political alerts against President Bush.

"I didn't know anything about what this 'green agenda' is being used to accomplish. Before, it was in one ear and out the other. But as I started looking at some of the things that were happening, I started thinking this stuff was real."

Rajnus became convinced that environmentalism is leading the country down the path toward socialism or, worse, communism. That extreme environmentalists are leading politicians by the nose like newly snipped steers.

That, as websites such as Freerepublic.com or Sierratimes.com ("An Internet Publication for Real Americans") claim, what happened in Klamath Falls shows that there is a larger problem than dry irrigation ditches. That this country has gone to hell.

That, as Sierra Times editor J.J. Johnson writes, the dry farms in Klamath are really "encampments."

"Let it be known that we did not start this war," he writes, "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 resupply operations ever--and more important than the Historic Berlin Airlift."

Rajnus also suspects that the ONRC-supported program to save water by using government money to buy farms from willing sellers is really a collusion between the United Nations and the U.S. government. That the Wildlands Project, a non-profit organization that says it wants to establish connecting natural corridors for wildlife, really wants to cage all humans in the cities and leave the rest of the West for natural habitat. That the water is being held not for fish--which he doesn't think are endangered, anyway--but to generate electricity for two dams on the Klamath River that are owned by Scottish Power, which is based in the United Kingdom...the same country that we banned from American soil in the Revolution.

Rajnus knows this sounds like crazy talk. But when a man's back is against the wall and he is fighting forces larger than himself, he begins looking for answers.

"I guess no one else sees it," he says. "They're busy golfing and watching MTV, and our freedoms are slipping away from us. I wasn't much different, but when your comfort level goes, you wake up."

After his conversion, Rajnus moved to Camp Headgate while his wife took care of their two children at home. By then the camp had became a boomtown, as donations of food and equipment were delivered by the truckload from local businesses. There is a kitchen that can feed hundreds of people at a time, a silver RV equipped with laptops and a phone line, and a stage for speeches and musical performances. Bales of hay are set up underneath a massive tent where people gather to visit, American flags flying above them.

At first glance, it looks like a Fourth of July picnic, until you notice the angry signs, the rubber George W. Bush head impaled on a fence post, the armed federal agents on the other side of that fence, and the fact that some of the flags are flying upside down.

Rajnus became a media darling. He did so many interviews that he lost his voice and burned through cell phone batteries talking to reporters from the BBC, the Los Angeles Times and every other media outlet that wanted a poignant story about hardworking farmers who had gotten screwed.

The camp has held fast for over a month and galvanized the people of the Klamath Basin, sometimes to the detriment of themselves and others. Farmers who have signed up for the "willing seller" program being pushed by the ONRC are being harassed by their neighbors. Federal employees who have worked in Klamath Falls for years are being "shunned." Most environmentalists in the Basin are keeping a low profile. Klamath Indians report racial slurs, and one middle-school Indian was briefly suspended from school for refusing to participate in a show of support for farmers.

The Freedom Day rally on Aug. 21 has captured the imagination of the Good Americans and may be the best summer theater in Southern Oregon outside of Ashland.

The Klamath Falls protesters have already proven they can put on a show. In May, some 13,000 people lined the streets of downtown, passing buckets of water hand to hand, moving the water from the lake to the main irrigation canal.

Organizers say that big-name country singers will be at the Freedom Day rally to hold a benefit concert, but they won't say who. Bulletin-board postings on websites say Willie might show up. They'll need someone like Willie Nelson, famous for his 1990s Farm Aid concerts, because over the next year they hope to raise $20 million to outbid the government on any buyback programs of farmland.

Helen Chenoweth, the passionate former congresswoman from Idaho who made her reputation attacking the government, will be there to give a fiery speech. The farmers will tell their stories, and John Stokes will burn his cross while the television cameras roll.

Bob St. Louis will also be there. He is coming in a caravan from Elko, Nev., that will hit Portland on its way to Klamath Falls this Friday. He is a member of the Jarbridge Shovel Brigade. In July of 2000, he was among the protesters who used levers, chains and human power to move a 10,000-pound boulder ("Liberty Rock") from a road leading into the Jarbidge Wilderness Area on the border of Idaho and Nevada. The road had been a main route for ATVs and four-wheel-drive trucks to get into the wilderness area, and locals protested when the Forest Service put up a blockade against motor vehicles to protect an endangered bull trout.

"We're just common, everyday Americans," he says. "Conservative people like us, when we're told what the law is, we tend to say OK and back down. Now we're taking a page from the folks on the other side of the coin. We're not going to be terrorists, but if we have to be more forceful or militant in order to have an impact on the people who make the policies, that's what we'll do."

The question is, are such rallies anything more than a way for angry, half-informed people to scape the goat?

The Good Americans want the Endangered Species Act amended so that the economic impact of a listing is considered. They want management of public lands and projects like the Klamath water system turned over to their local governments. They want, in essence, to be left alone to do as they see fit.

But this is 2001, not 1901. Even under a Bush administration, Congress is about as likely to rescind the Endangered Species Act as it is to make handguns illegal. Public support for wildlife protection remains so high that there is now a green organization called Republicans for Environmental Protection, and Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith's bill to reform the ESA was unceremoniously dismissed in the U.S. Senate.

Still, it cannot be denied that the Camp Headgate sit-in has had an effect, and if 10,000 people show up in Klamath Falls next week, the noise will be difficult to ignore in Washington, D.C., if only as populist oil to grease the rhetoric machine.

In the early days of the battle, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton sent the farmers a disappointing blow by refusing to convene a "God Squad" panel to review whether the fish should even be saved. After Camp Headgate began receiving media attention, however, she released to the farmers an extra foot of water that was "found" on the lake. That water is scheduled to dry up on Aug. 20, the day before the rally. She has also called for a review by the National Academy of Sciences of the biological opinions about the Klamath's endangered fish, and Eastern Oregon Republican Congressman Greg Walden has introduced a bill that would require such reviews on all ESA listings.

Rajnus believes his voice will be heard if he and the other Good Americans yell loud enough. Media coverage of the Klamath has dwindled since the water was turned on, but he is convinced the rally will bring it back. It isn't just the politicians he hopes will hear, but the people in cities like Portland where, he says, environmentalism is as easy as writing a check to the Sierra Club.

"I don't blame them," he says. "They make their tax-deductible donation and don't see what this is doing to us." If family farmers are pushed out of the Klamath Basin, he says, "wait until all the American farmers are gone and there are five big ag companies. Food is going to be so expensive you'll wish you could live on vitamins and water."

Rajnus will be performing at the rally, too. It turns out he's not only a farmer but a singer who traveled to Nashville three years ago to make a demo CD of four country songs. He found God, came home and settled back into farming, but he still performs concerts for the congregation of his church.

The song he'll be singing was written by a Klamath Falls woman.

"It's kind of controversial," he says. "It starts out saying, 'Wake up, America, before this happens to you,' and then goes into some stuff about Hitler. You have to look back. This isn't a gas chamber, it's more of a slow train wreck, but it's happening."


The two endangered species of sucker fish are the Lost River and shortnosed suckers.




WEBSITES:
www.klamathbasincrisis.org (the protesters' page, including a lively discussion forum)

www.onrc.org (Oregon Natural Resources Council)

www.greenout.org is the website for Holly Swanson of Medford, who has written a book called Set Up and Sold Out about what she calls Earth Day greenwashing in the public-school system.




The Nevada convoy will hit Portland Friday, Aug. 17.




KPC Communications of Sacramento, Calif., has helped the farmers spread the word of their plight. KPC is the PR arm of Kahl/Pownall Advocates, the biggest contract lobbying firm in California.




Kahl/Pownall Clients include Dow Chemical, Western States Petroleum Association and the Forest Resources Council.




To get to Klamath Falls: Only rookies drive all the way south on I-5 then turn left at Medford. That adds an hour to the trip. Take I-5 to Eugene, then east on 58 through Oakridge until you hit Highway 97.




Shawna, a tender at Waldo's Bar and Mongolian Grill on Main Street in Klamath Falls, serves up a refreshing concoction called a Washington Red Apple, a mix of vodka, grenadine and a liquor called Apple Pucker.




THE REST OF THE STORY:
A summary on the issues from the Oregon Water Resource Department: www.wrd.state.or.us/programs/klamath/summary.shtml .




Exact figures aren't known, but the Bureau of Reclamation figures that the farmers whose water was cut off actually account for less than half of the irrigation in the district. Most other farmers get their water from wells or other systems.




Klamath Falls won't be the first time John Stokes, owner of KGEZ in Kalispell, Mont., has made a scene. Critics say he uses his talk show to incite listeners. After Stokes criticized her on the air last spring, one Montana resident found garbage and nails in her driveway the next morning.




Gavin Rajnus says he has asked Stokes not to bring the green swastika, saying that would be hate speech. Stokes told WW, "I'm not prone to listen to any committees."
 
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