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Politics, politics, everywhere - even on Klamath water

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Politics is everywhere and money is all over politics. That is certainly nothing new, but now it seems America is particularly caught up in a feeding frenzy of political quid pro quos and applied pressure.

Now comes insight into the politics of the Klamath Basin War, the struggle in Oregon and the Klamath River basin of irrigation water versus fish. Last year's Interior Department decision to restore water to the farmers at the cost of 30,000 salmon was, in large measure, all about protecting the Republican Party's "political base." Endangered salmon, it seems count for less than endangered incumbent Republican senators.

Politics is running particularly deep these days in the White House, where every issue seems destined for diagnosis on the basis of political expediency, leaving deeper and more intelligent, perhaps integrated solutions, floundering like thousands of dead salmon.

The Wall Street Journal's news pages recently contained the revelation, confirmed by veteran public servant Neal McCaleb, that the Bush White House directly rattled public servants of the Interior Department to reallocate precious water from the river flow to Oregon farmers.

The year before officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation had shut off irrigation diversion from the Klamath River under court pressure invoking the Endangered Species Act. Farmers in the region reacted bitterly, symbolically storming the irrigation gates and directing part of their anger at the Indian tribes up and down the river who felt a special obligation to defend the threatened fish, salmon and three species of mullet called Cwam, Quapto and Yen in the indigenous language. (It is still a matter of controversy just how many farmers in this marginal and heavily subsidized area suffered real economic loss. Some argue that only a few hundred failed to turn a profit from their federal compensation.) But the story now is that White House political strategist Karl Rove intervened directly to reverse that decision, to defend a vulnerable Republican senator from Oregon.

In March 2002, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman personally opened the headwater gates to irrigate the Klamath farmland. They also attempted to mollify the Klamath Tribes by offering the return of nearly 400,000 acres taken from them by the Forest Service, a promise that has still not come to fruition. Months later, the Klamath River suffered what has been called the largest fish die-off in the history of the western states. Low water levels were cited for the kill of more than 30,000 salmon in the Lower Klamath. (Fishery officials said that disease and high heat also contributed to the die-off.)

We commend Wall Street Journal reporter Tom Hamburger for breaking the story of a scandalous strategy session in which some 50 top managers at the U.S. Interior Department were required to sit in and listen as White House strategist Rove exhorted them to think of the Republican base as they decided policy on allocation of the country's natural resources. Various officials have attested that Rove and assistants, using color-coded charts and slides showing polling data, exhorted them to "support our base." Mark Pfeifle, Interior spokesman, reports Mr. Rove "spoke in general terms about the Klamath conflict in the course of a broader discussion." Without directing a policy outcome, Mr. Pfeifle says, Mr. Rove simply "indicated the need to help the basin's farmers." Reports the Journal's Hamburger, "Flashing color slides, [Rove] spoke of poll results, critical constituencies - and water levels in the Klamath River basin."

One telling sequence was this:

Jan. 5, 2002. Rove travels with President Bush to Portland, where Bush pledges to accommodate agricultural interests: "We'll do everything we can to make sure water is available for those who farm."

Jan. 6, 2002. Rove visits a department retreat at a Fish and Wildlife Service conference center in West Virginia. Using a PowerPoint presentation to the 50 managers, Rove, "brought up the Klamath and made clear that the administration was siding with agricultural interests."

During this period President Bush personally appointed a cabinet-level committee to resolve the conflict.

The Wall Street Journal points out that Rove and his folks make periodic visits to departments and agencies, openly addressing political issues as a cause of federal policy. Purpose: "to outline White House campaign priorities, review polling data and, on occasion, call attention to tight House, Senate and gubernatorial races that could be affected by regulatory action."

Maybe the country is getting used to this kind of brazen and self-deceiving application of political power, getting accustomed to accepting truth by political dictum. It certainly went on in Democratic administrations, as well, famously winning Harry Truman re-election in 1948 in the face of widely predicted defeat. But if so, it is a dangerous trend. So far a few scholars and several officials with White House experience have expressed their shock at the direct political meddling in federal policy and its practical application. We urge many others to come forward and attest to the proper condemnation of political arm-twisting of this magnitude. To accept such actions from the executive branch of the government is to help erode the delicate balances of power that form the basis for the country's vibrant, and yet tenuous democracy.

One who came forward to discuss the event was former BIA head Neal McCaleb. McCaleb went on record with The Wall Street Journal and with Indian Country Today, attesting to "the chilling effect" of Rove's presentation at Interior and describing and confirming the context of the event. While McCaleb points to other reasons for his own support of the water allocation to farmers, his open-minded and honest approach, as an insider to the extraordinary session and methods of political strategist Karl Rove in the Klamath River boondoggle, deserves support and respect.

We extend our best wishes to Sue Masten and the Yurok and other downstream tribes taking on the federal government and the Oregon Republican base on this issue. We support the Klamath Tribes too in seeking the return of their land, which they would certainly manage better than the federal government has. We invite your commentaries in the ongoing fight for your relatives the salmon and for the survival of your way of life.