It isn't every day The Wall Street Journal praises people who destroy public property in a dispute over a federal agency's handling of natural resources.
But then, it isn't every day that fish get priority over farmers in the struggle for scarce natural resources in the West.
The Klamath River Basin has seen these remarkable developments this year. The Klamath, which flows from Oregon through California to the Pacific, is the site of this dramatic water crisis. A catastrophic drought hit the basin, and federal scientists said that nearly all the water available to the Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Project was needed instead for the survival of three species of fish protected by the Endangered Species Act.
Farmers who traditionally received water from the Klamath Project are getting little this year. And it's not only them: The basin's magnificent wildlife refuges are last in line for water and drying up.
Outraged that fish would get water before farmers, many basin residents protested. Politicians, seeing a golden opportunity to attack the ESA, have bashed the law, the science and the agencies. Agitators from other Western states have swooped in to preach local control and property rights, urging locals to fight back against the U.S. government.
Then the talk escalated into vigilantism. In late June, someone broke open a sealed headgate and sent water illegally down a Bureau of Reclamation canal. A standoff ensued between local and federal authorities over who was responsible for closing the gate; finally the bureau closed it. Then it happened twice more: Protesters used blowtorches and special chainsaws to cut open the headgate.
After the first incident, the bureau announced there would be no investigation; no attempt to determine who had vandalized public property and spilled water needed for the survival of endangered fish. Even after three incidents -- each more brazen than the last -- there was no move to arrest or prosecute anyone.
Finally, someone stood up to defend the headgate, but it wasn't the government. It was farmers and others who opposed the vandalism. After the rabble-rousers threatened to cut it open yet again, these citizens set up camp around it and vowed to prevent any further damage.
It didn't matter. Protesters forced open the gate a fourth time, and endangered fish were swept into the canal to die. Some of the local folks didn't like it. One was quoted as saying that the action "frames us as a bunch of lawbreakers, and that's the last thing we need."
The Wall Street Journal had no such qualms. WSJ editor Kimberley Strasser said the Klamath vandals were taking a "principled stand" against an "unjust" law -- the ESA. She gushed that their property destruction was "good, old-fashioned civil disobedience" in the finest tradition of Thoreau.
In contrast, she wrote, groups such as the Earth Liberation Front are "green goons" and "cowards who do their dirty work in the dead of night."
Lost in all this noise are two key points. First, whether you call them freedom fighters or agro-terrorists, the vandals are just that, and they are not helping the search for real solutions.
The Klamath Basin needs enough water to protect fish, birds and other wildlife, fulfill treaties to tribes and supply farms at a sustainable level.
Political leadership is needed to achieve this vision: good-faith involvement of all the stakeholders, a major investment of public funds for a range of solutions. Property destruction and revolutionary rhetoric won't solve any problems.
Second, let's not forget that before this summer's enforcement of the ESA, rivers routinely dried up in the West as irrigators and others sucked the water out. The oldest users always get their fill with little or no regard for the death of rivers and fish. And it's all legal under Western state water laws.
"Unjust laws"? That depends on whom you ask. I believe Western water laws need to be revised the same way that many irrigators think the ESA is all wet.
But I'm not calling for anyone to engage in "good, old-fashioned civil disobedience." I hope no farmer ever has water cut off by somebody taking direct action to save dying fish. But if that did happen, it's a safe bet that neither the government nor The Wall Street Journal would cheer on the lawbreakers.
Reed D. Benson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (www.hcn.org). He works for Water Watch in Portland, Ore.
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