- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 16, 2001

The drought in South Oregon has pitted the survival of 1,500 dying farms against the endangered brown sucker fish prompting an emergency congressional hearing and underscoring the growing need to modernize the federal Endangered Species Act.

This summer´s drought has slashed available water in Oregon´s Klamath Basin by more than 90 percent. Now, there isn´t enough water for both the region´s thirsty farms and an endangered fish that lives in the Upper Klamath Falls Lake. Federal fish and wildlife agents in the area have decided in favor of the fish, refusing to release irrigation water farmers have relied on for a half-century.

As a result, nearly a quarter-million acres of farm land in the Klamath Basin of Oregon and California are dying. Farmers couldn´t plant this year. The local newspaper reports that irreplaceable top soil needed for future crops is literally being blown away by winds.

The House Resources Committee, over which I preside, has been barraged with more than 400 letters, e-mails and phone calls from panicked residents. Schoolchildren as young as 5 have written, pleading with Congress to save their daddies´ farms. Longtime residents as old as 94 have joined in the plea for help.

Half a dozen members of Congress will fly to Oregon this weekend for an oversight hearing. As many as 7,000 people are expected to attend the largest attendance at a congressional hearing in recent memory.

The stakes couldn´t be higher. The entire region´s economy depends on farming. Ironically, a nearby wildlife refuge is also threatened. Thousands of migratory birds, including threatened species like the bald eagle, are homeless and vulnerable to the diseases that invade parched wetlands because federal officials won´t release water for the refuge.

These federal officials are only obeying the mandates of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a 30-year-old mammoth law that dictates the federal micromanagement of regional challenges like the one facing Oregon.

The crisis in Klamath Falls illustrates the unintended harm caused by this inflexible law. Republicans and Democrats alike are unhappy with the ESA. It´s been due for reauthorization since 1991, but neither a Democrat nor Republican Congress was willing to reauthorize it without substantial modernization.

Both sides of the aisle are troubled because the law doesn´t really help struggling species. Currently, the Endangered Species Act lists more than 1,000 species as endangered or threatened. Yet, in the last 30 years, only 11 species have been recovered. If that were a batting average, a ballplayer would be looking for a new career.

So far, no one can agree on what changes should be made. The House Resources Committee has created the bipartisan Endangered Species Act Working Group to come up with proposed amendments everyone can agree on.

It´s a herculean task. The Endangered Species Act sparks passion in conservatives and liberals alike. Emotional issues like the environment, wildlife, property rights and humanity´s need to provide for itself from the land come into play when one examines the ESA.

For you and I, these issues are intriguing topics for discussion. For Marion Palmer, the ESA is about survival. Mr. Palmer´s family was drawn to the region by the promise of irrigation water from the Bureau of Reclamation´s then-new Klamath Basin Project. The government lured out-of-work World War II veterans to the region with this promise.

"Fifty-nine years ago, we were welcomed home as heroes and asked to feed a hungry world. Today we may be reduced to welfare recipients standing in line for rice and cheese," Mr. Palmer said.

For decades, Klamath Basin´s dreams of agricultural prosperity came true. Farmers dominated the horseradish market. Now, the fertile soil is blowing away, damning future crops to failure.

When do we say enough is enough? Ten years ago, we watched Washington logging communities fade away because of the ESA. Now Southern Oregon´s agricultural community is at risk.

It is time to get serious about modernizing the Endangered Species Act. We must allow for flexibility, common sense, local experimentation and community involvement. We must stop imposing Beltway mandates on diverse regions and economies. We need to forge a common sense law that actually helps struggling species without devastating human communities. People, too, have a right to live and prosper.

James V. Hansen, Utah Republican, is chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Resources Committee.

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