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Suckers for the Suckerfish
June 21, 2001

There's a new endangered species in Klamath Falls, Oregon. If no one intervenes, the handful that remain - just 1,400 by last count - will soon join the ranks of dinosaurs and the dodo birds. The genus of this dying breed? Common name: American family farmer - sacrificed to save an inedible bottom-feeder called the suckerfish.

Ground zero in the fish feud is a 200,000 acre swath of farmland along the Oregon-California border that can no longer be irrigated because a federal judge ruled that suckerfish have first claim to the water. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, releasing Klamath Basin water to the valley would cause "irreparable damage" to the fish, which has graced the Endangered Species Register since 1988.

As a result, fields once lush with wheat, barley, onions, and peppermint now lie dormant - cracked and barren. Land values have dropped from $800 per acre to $50, school populations have plummeted 30%, and area farmers stand to lose $250 million this year alone. The food bank's the most active business in town. And worst of all, for Klamath Falls this is deja-vu all over again. They call it "rural cleansing." A decade ago, the spotted owl shut down the timber industry and agriculture emerged as the replacement. This time there's no back-up plan, and environmental groups are already plotting to turn the valley into a preserve.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has promised a review and President Bush has proposed a remedy: a paltry $20 million subsidy. But Klamath Falls would rather have its livelihood back. "It is so unnecessary to lead the farmers to the federal trough and feed off the taxpayers," Don Russell, President of the Klamath Basin Water Users told the Washington Times. "Just give us the water, and we will make the money, and we won't destroy the species." Well said. In the not so distant past, reasonable folks with the good sense to put people before fish would have agreed.

Indeed. Remind us once more whose manners need refining.

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