On the national stage, the Klamath Basin has become the poster child for reform of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While there's still extensive work to be done in and out of the Klamath on the ESA, it's hard at this point not to ask for a curtain call from one of the Klamath's key players — Mike Byrne of Tulelake, CA.

On April 7, 2001, furor erupted when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) suspended irrigation allotments to 1,400 Klamath Basin project farmers and ranchers. Wildlife and fisheries agencies, with concurrence by a federal judge, had determined that habitat protection for two suckerfish species in Upper Klamath Lake and downstream coho salmon populations took priority over other water uses.

Klamath farmers and ranchers argued that “fuzzy science” led to the listing of the fish as endangered under the ESA. Among the crowd fighting for “good science” and a return of the water to the ditches in the Klamath, Byrne stands very tall. Just ask U.S. Congressman Greg Walden.

“Mike Byrne represents the best of what citizenship in America means,” Walden (R-OR) told the nation last year in a House floor speech that was placed into the Congressional Record. “He's been in the trenches every day, in town hall meetings, in meetings with federal, state and local authorities and around kitchen tables throughout the basin. I take great pride in Mike's ceaseless efforts on behalf of his fellow ranchers and farmers.”

Before the ink was dry on the BOR's decision, Walden said Byrne was hard at work raising awareness about the Klamath crisis — rallying support from coast to coast.

“Mike understood that the future of agriculture in the Klamath — and throughout the U.S. — laid in finding a balanced and workable solution to the conflict between farming and species protection,” said Walden. “Many hurdles remain… I'm grateful that I'll have Mike by my side throughout the challenges that lie ahead.”

Walden later took the Klamath issue to an even higher level. He and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) met with President George W. Bush during a flight to Portland on Air Force One. Much of their discussion was dedicated to the Klamath Basin. Later that day during an appearance in Portland, Bush vowed his support for Klamath farmers.

Meanwhile, the states of California and Oregon, along with the federal government, poured millions of dollars into the Klamath. Taxpayer money was used for everything from punching irrigation wells deep into Klamath aquifers to direct financial handouts for out-of-work farm employees.

But the aid and assistance left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Klamath residents. Folks like Byrne want more than handouts.

“We don't want to raise our families to be welfare recipients,” says Byrne. “We had a very good economy going before this all happened.”

The Media Gets Involved

Sympathy and support for Klamath agriculture didn't just come via conservative politicians. The national news media got involved, too.

For instance, after talking to Klamath producers, including Byrne, Deborah J. Saunders wrote a column entitled, “A drought of common sense” in the July 15, 2001, San Francisco Chronicle.

“So the fish get all the water, and the farmers get all the drought,” she wrote. “What makes the farmers extra mad is that they don't believe the court decision is based on sound science.”

Saunders ended her column with a sardonic caveat. “No need to protect farmers. They're just the chumps who put food on America's tables.”

Michael Kelly's “Evicted by Environmentalists” in the July 11, 2001, Washington Post was just as cutting.

“The act has worked as intended, but it has been exploited by environmental groups whose agenda is to force humans out of lands they wish to see returned to a pre-human state,” Kelly explained. “Never has this been made more nakedly, brutally clear than in the battle of the Klamath.”

Even at ABC News, commentator John Stossel featured the Klamath Basin in a segment of 20/20 newsmagazine. A promo for the segment asked: “Is the government's environmental policing becoming fanatical environmentalism? John Stossel says ‘Give me a Break’ to some bad science surrounding endangered species.”

“What happened up there got a lot of attention from the American public,” says Anne Hayes, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. “They're finally seeing just how harsh the ESA can be. And you're going to have results like that repeated over and over and over again as long as we have the ESA. It's just a bad law.”

Bad Science, Indeed

As the political and social heat on the BOR hit the boiling point, word came down that the science used to close the Klamath project headgates would be tested. Interior Secretary Gail Norton commissioned a full-blown scientific review of the biological opinions of Klamath fisheries.

Last February, a team of scientists convened by the National Academy of Science (NAS) reported it had found no evidence that higher water levels in Klamath Lake benefit suckerfish or that reduced flows of Klamath River water harm coho salmon. In fact, the NAS scientists said shunting more lake water into the Klamath River might actually harm coho salmon by raising the water temperature near springs where the salmon retreat in hot weather.

Farmers and ranchers throughout the Klamath and the U.S. were pleased but not surprised by the NAS study's conclusions.

“We've known all along the problem isn't drought or a shortage of water,” says Byrne. “Last year was the first time in 90 years that irrigation water didn't flow to our ranch. We know what droughts are all about, and we've been through them before.”

As important as the NAS report has become in developing policy on the Klamath, the initial elation on its release was short lived. Producers worried that political solutions wouldn't come soon enough to ensure water delivery to their fields in 2002.

A great deal of damage had already been done. The assessed value of Klamath farmland dropped from $800/acre to as low as $26. That's if you could find anyone interested in providing money for anything but a ticket out of town.

Reflecting the NAS's findings, late in February the BOR issued the final 2002 biological assessment (BA) for the Klamath. Augmented by a 116%-of-normal winter snowpack, political changes buoyed hopes for a “normal” water year in 2002.

A central piece of the BA was a 10-year “water bank” proposal using a willing-seller approach to meet targeted lake levels and river flows. Simply put, farmers could sell annual water entitlements to meet environmental needs.

Deposits into the bank would come from a variety of sources, including off-stream storage, temporary irrigation demand reduction and groundwater.

The proposal got lukewarm support from Klamath producers, but it was far superior to proposals that would have permanently acquired water and land through a federal buyout of family farms and ranches.

“The government has already acquired over 25,000 acres of farmland in the Upper Klamath Basin for habitat purposes,” says Byrne. “If the benefits of previous conversions can't be identified, why should we support additional conversions?”

Byrne and others insisted that in exchange for compensated participation in this water bank, 100% of the long-term irrigation demand for remaining Klamath Project acreage would be satisfied, season-long.

Keeping Up The Heat

Meanwhile, Byrne and others are persisting to undo the damage done on the Klamath. The USDA included $50 million for improvement of water delivery and resource conservation in the 2002 farm bill. Additionally, $10.8 million will be used for a fish screen, trash racks and a fish bypass system in Upper Klamath Lake.

Byrne is wary, though, that mitigation efforts will deflect attention from the basic controversy. He continues to keep heat on the fundamental issue — that Congress and the Bush administration should be focusing on the uncertain science underlying the justification to take water from agriculture and dedicate it to environmental purposes.

A New Approach

K.L. Bliss, Sand Springs, MT, is president of the national Public Lands Council and works with Byrne. He thinks Byrne's efforts are being felt far beyond the Klamath.

“I know Mike doesn't like getting this attention; he feels he doesn't deserve it any more than anyone else fighting to get the ESA changed,” says Bliss.

“But people need to know that one person can make a difference. You can draw a direct connection between Mike's efforts in the Klamath and a nationwide movement to get sound science involved in endangered species determination,” he says.

Bliss adds that even if changes aren't made in the ESA's enabling legislation itself, federal wildlife agencies are taking a whole new approach to interpreting and implementing rules and regulations.

“The Klamath Basin crisis woke America up to the reality that rural America has faced for too long,” Walden says today.

“While he's too humble to let others know it, Mike has been an instrumental part of the team that has educated elected officials and citizens across our country,” he explains.

“The problems surrounding the ESA are complicated and not easily resolved,” Walden concludes. “But we are making progress towards bringing sound science, common sense and fairness to this far-reaching law.”

The Byrne Bio

name: Mike Byrne

hometown: Tulelake, CA

age: 51

current job: co-owns Robert A. Byrne Co., a cow-calf operation in Tulelake, CA, with his brother Dan Byrne

education: University of California-Davis, bachelor's degree in agricultural science and management with an animal science specialty

service positions: vice president of the Public Lands Council; chairman of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's endangered species sub-committee; president of the Lava Beds Butte Valley Resource Conservation District; and on the board of directors for the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition

family: married 26 years to Beverly and has two children — Matthew, 22, and Brianna, 18