Department of Interior Launches Investigation

Into Klamath Basin Decisions

by Dan Bacher

Dissident Voice

September 11, 2003


In response to a request from Senator John Kerry, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Inspector General has launched an investigation into whether the Bush administration exerted political influence to provide more Klamath River Basin water for farmers at the expense of fish and Indian tribes.


The management of the river under the “Ten Year Plan” developed under Gale Norton, Interior Secretary, has come under attack by Indian tribes and fishermen for causing the deaths of over 34,000 salmon in the lower Klamath River in September 2002.  Diversions of Klamath water to fields earlier in the year resulted in warm, low flows below Iron Gate Dam last fall, leading to an unprecedented outbreak of disease and the largest recorded fish kill in U.S. history.


“The Bush administration has acted as if federal agencies like the Interior Department are a division of the Republican National Committee and at their disposal to give out political favors,” said Kerry. “The Klamath decision should have been based on law and science and not a political operatives agenda, polls and campaign priorities.”


Kerry is the ranking minority member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that has jurisdiction over fishery issues. He also is a recently declared presidential candidate.


The requests were spurred by a Wall Street Journal article on July 30 that detailed how Karl Rove, White House political advisor, engineered a change in water policy favoring Klamath Basin farmers over fish to assist the re-election campaign of U.S. Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR). Rove apparently began his efforts with a presentation to Interior Department officials connecting regulatory actions - including the Klamath issue - to Republican prospects in the coming elections.


When Norton opened the irrigation system head gates that increased the water supply to Klamath Basin farmers in 2001, Senator Gordon Smith stood beside her for a well orchestrated photo opportunity.


Mark Pfeifle, DOI spokesman, defended the controversial decision by the National Academy of Sciences - that resulted in lower flows below Iron Gate Dam for salmon - as based on the “best available science.” He blasted the Kerry Campaign for “partisan sniping.”


“We are entering a campaign where people are more interested in partisan sniping than making progress,” said Pfeifle. “The DOI is focused on providing water for fish, tribes, fishermen and farmers. We have the resources to inspire both a dynamic economy and a healthy ecosystem in the Klamath Basin. What has Kerry ever done for people and fish in the Klamath Basin? While Kerry snipes, we work."


Both Kerry and the Yurok Tribe responded positively to the decision by the Inspector General to investigate the charges.


“The agreement by the Interior Department’s Inspector General to investigate this matter to see if political pressure from the White House intimidated staff and influenced policy is a positive development and the appropriate first step,” said Kerry. “I anxiously await their decision.”


Troy Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, said he was “cautiously optimistic” regarding the investigation. However, he said he hoped that the investigation was not narrowly limited to issues around the Endangered Species Act - coho salmon on the Klamath River and endangered suckers in the Klamath Basin.


“We hope that the Inspector General does an analysis of other issues, not just endangered coho salmon,”  Fletcher said. “They also have a tribal trust responsibility here to protect all species for the benefit of the Yuroks and everybody else. We can’t just ignore the king salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, lamprey eel and other non-listed species.”


In a letter to Kerry, Earl E. Devaney, Interior's Inspector General, said that it will investigate:


1. What would be the normal regulatory process in a matter such as this, assuming that this was an Administrative Procedures Act governed regulatory matter.


2. What actually happened in the administrative process in the Klamath Basin matter.


3. How the Klamath Basin matter deviated from the norm (if at all) with special attention paid to “the science,” “any suppressed information,” and “any evidence of political interference.”


Kerry was joined in his request for the investigation by Congressman Mike Thompson (D-California), whose North Coast district was impacted hardest by the fish kill. Thompson is the author of legislation promoting salmon recovery on the North Coast that passed through the House Resources Committee in June. The bill would allocate $600 million over three years for salmon conservation and habitat recovery projects in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.


The bill is supported by a broad, bi-partisan coalition of organizations, including the National Association of Homebuilders, the California Farm Bureau and American Rivers. Even Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a vocal critic of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws, has praised and supported the legislation. “This legislation is exactly what’s needed for species recovery - it is targeted conservation and habitat restoration that will recover salmon,” Pombo said.


In a related development, fishing, conservation and government watch groups, including the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisheries Associations, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for a copy of Rove’s presentation made to federal fish and wildlife managers in January 2002, when he advised them to make sure their agency decisions supported increased Republican voter political polling numbers.


Hopefully, the Inspector General’s probe will get to the bottom of the “Iron Gate Scandal.” I applaud the Klamath River tribes, recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, environmental groups and the offices of Senator Kerry and Congressmen Thompson for applying the political pressure needed to prod the investigation.


“The probe will be a step in the right direction - if it proves to be a real investigation and not a whitewash,” summed up Steve Evans, conservation director of Friends of the River.


Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: danielbacher@hotmail.com


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