By Erin Sherbert
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Leo Bergeron struts into Yreka's Greenhorn Grange Hall like he owns the room: dark-blue jeans, large white cowboy hat, enormous silver "L" belt buckle, repeatedly firing off an index finger "pistol" to greet fellow Greenhorns. To an extent, he does own the place -- Bergeron is on the executive committee of the California State Grange, one of the nation's largest outdoors groups. Which makes him something of a player in this barnlike hall that looks like it could host a church service or gym class as easily as it will host tonight's community events.
Bergeron and the rest of the crowd of about 200 are here for a Grange-sponsored spaghetti dinner and charity auction meant to aid farmers in the drought-besieged Klamath Basin. Water shortages aren't unusual for the basin -- it's essentially a desert made farmable by a 1940s government irrigation project -- but this crisis is exacerbated by environmental restrictions on the federal government's ability to release water to farmers.
Normally the basin's farmers get about 500,000 acre-feet of water. This year, farmers got 70,000. Both environmentalists and many farmers acknowledge the basin's primary problem is that the government promised water to too many parties. It promised water rights to the fishermen in the area's Indian tribes during the 1860s, and then -- after the irrigation project was built during the 1900s -- it promised much of the same water to farmers. Later, as species protection became a government concern, more water was promised to the area's wildlife refuges.
In January, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service each issued opinions requiring minimum water levels in Klamath Lake and minimum flows in the adjoining Klamath River. Lower levels, the agencies concluded, could be fatal to two endangered species of fish, the suckerfish and the coho salmon, which were first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1988 and 1997, respectively.
On April 6, a federal judge ordered that water be withheld to protect the fish, delivering a severe blow to the Klamath economy and a severe scare to communities such as the Scott Valley, which is near Yreka (pronounced wye-REEK-a, and not to be confused with coastal Eureka) and where similar restrictions on water use are expected next summer. For many of the region's family farmers, already struggling financially, a questionable water future will force them to abandon their farms, which sometimes means selling to land conservancies that may then transfer the property to the federal government.
To Bergeron, this circumstance is no accident.
"This is rural cleansing, plain and simple," he says assuredly, not at all hesitant to evoke the widespread rape and murder that defined "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia. "That's what they did here. They cleansed the rural areas. They did.
"Now, they didn't fire a shot or forcibly relocate a soul. But the result is the same."
The phrase "rural cleansing" had been thrown around for a year or two within the highly conservative circles of the so-called property rights movement before it appeared as the title of a July opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Written by Kimberly Strassel, an assistant features editor at the Journal, the piece focused primarily on an environmental group, called the Oregon National Resources Council, that has played a prominent role in the Klamath Basin crisis by suing the government under the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. The Oregon group was among the first to suggest government buyouts -- at above-market prices -- of the struggling farmers.
Strassel described a process in which some environmental groups have sought to "expunge humans from the countryside" by forcing the government into action through the Endangered Species Act and other laws. It was a strongly worded, highly conservative, unabashedly anti-environmentalist -- but straightforward -- essay.
In the counties in California's far north and Oregon's far south -- counties that have, for decades, longed to form a new state called "Jefferson" -- the essay's title has captured the imagination of a people predisposed to be wary of liberal-leaning politics in particular, and government in general. Indeed, anti-government and anti-U.N. fears have existed for a long time in the state of Jefferson. So long, in fact, that when a very real crisis comes along that looks a little like the conspiracy theories, folks tend to imagine the worst.
And they have very vivid imaginations.
"When I read that [in the Journal], it was really satisfying," says Holly Swanson, the Medford, Ore.-based author of Set Up & Sold Out, a 366-page argument that the Green movement contains the ideological heirs to Stalin and Hitler. "I'd been writing the same things but never used the term "rural cleansing' to describe it."
Swanson is sitting in a plush booth in the sterile but pleasant lobby restaurant at Medford's Red Lion Hotel, and she looks nothing like what her bombastic prose might suggest. Who would imagine, for instance, that the woman who wrote this sentence -- "The Nazi parades were similar to the Greens' Earth Day events" -- would look so much like Katie Couric?
Swanson's story, as she tells it, is simple enough. "I read about a Green gathering in the paper and decided to go," she says. "And I found out it was socialism." That was in 1988; Swanson spent the next six years digging through libraries, news clippings, and public records.