- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Not since the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, when public officials in the West threatened to jail federal land managers, has the frustration felt by citizens in our part of the country over burdensome government decisions been nearer to the boiling point. This time, the storm centers around the scientific validity of federal environmental policies , which many residents of the West are convinced favor endangered species at the expense of people who make their living from agriculture and natural resource production.

For more than nine months a debate reminiscent of the spotted owl controversy of the early 1990s has raged in the Klamath Basin of Southern Oregon and Northern California over endangered sucker fish and Coho salmon that populate Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath River. Both these fish and local farmers and ranchers depend on the lake water for their survival, ensuring a clash would arise when a severe drought struck the region in 2000 and 2001. A subsequent determination by the federal government that the resulting low lake levels and river flows threatened fish survivability led to a complete shut-off of irrigation water in April 2001. Understandably, the decision ignited fierce objection among local residents, and the Klamath Basin became a case study on the unintended ill effects of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Established by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1906, the Klamath Project transformed a patch of land largely unsuitable for agriculture into a prosperous farming community. The government's explicit promise of permanent water rights for agriculture attracted thousands of farmers to the Klamath Basin, where their descendants have farmed for generations. Nevertheless, under the ESA this promise became subordinate to the interests of endangered species. After the water shut-off, agriculture in the Klamath Basin dried up. A joint study by Oregon State University and the University of California at Berkeley estimates that the regional economy has lost $134 million to date as a result of the government's actions.

A reasonable person might assume that before embarking on a course that is utterly incompatible with a healthy agricultural economy, the federal agencies would be armed with unimpeachable scientific justification. Sadly, that was not the case. A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report confirmed what farmers in the Klamath Basin have long suspected that the government's decision to shut off irrigation water had "no sound scientific basis." The report went further to suggest that high river flows in the Klamath River as recommended by the federal agencies might actually be lethal to the salmon. This vindication, however sweet to opponents of the ESA, will do little to console the 1,400 farm families whose livelihood has been destroyed by the federal government and the larger community that depends upon a stable agriculture sector.

The crisis in the Klamath Basin forces the question of how many other federal mandates are based on insufficient or unsound science. Investigations into allegations that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service officials in Washington state deliberately falsified data to misrepresent the habitat of the endangered Canadian lynx have already begun. Such impropriety is made possible by a federal structure that confers upon mid-level government biologists the power to seal off immense tracts of land and water without peer review of their data or substantive checks on their authority.

After the debacle in the Klamath Basin, we must ask what can be done to ensure that federal agencies do not make similar missteps in their zeal to protect endangered species. Last year, I introduced a bill in Congress to require that the science upon which federal species policies are based is field tested or peer reviewed. While principled arguments can be made on both sides of this debate by those who feel the protection of endangered species should supersede economic considerations and the toll on human lives and those who believe species protection should be balanced with the needs of agriculture and industry we should all be able to agree that these decisions should be made based on science that is as close to definitive as possible.

We must work to improve the science upon which our environmental policies are based and restore badly shattered public confidence in our nation's federal agencies. Just as imperative is the task of educating Americans in the East about the human toll of scientifically unjustified environmental actions that disproportionately affect the western United States. In rural communities surrounded by public land, where government restrictions have hampered agriculture and resource production, the loss of jobs is not the only concern. So, too, is the disappearance of tax revenue that funds local education and health care, which environmental policies have decimated in many parts of the West.

Today, cynicism is palpable among citizens in the rural West over what they perceive to be the arrogance of unelected bureaucrats, who often issue sweeping restrictions on the land surrounding Western homes, farms and ranches without substantive public input from the people whose lives are most affected. The adversarial stance between land users and the federal agencies is particularly galling when one considers that farmers and ranchers are more often than not conscientious stewards of the land. Dismissing these realities threatens to widen the already vast gulf between suburban and rural Americans. And continuing down the current path will only ensure the continued deterioration of the Western way of life and the alienation of millions of citizens in the West from their government.

Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, is a member of the Committee on Resources.

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