The tracks of destructive careless people.
The Washington Post exposed how Dick Cheney secretly maneuvered to overturn an agency decision to keep water for farmers, and the result was the largest fish kill ever. People are justifiably pissed, mostly at the sheer cynicism of his manipulations. He personally interfered to reverse a decision that was made in public to balance the laws of our country, used the agencies to get Republican politicians elected, and the results were visible devastation. Years later, that particular scheme is still reverberating; I want to illustrate some of the consequences of Cheney’s decision that a close election in Oregon meant that Republican farmers would get water.
Cheney’s manipulations had costs. It weakened the Endangered Species Act, by introducing a new, unprecedented level of review for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion. It discredited agency science and the concept of governing based on objective science. Longtime Fish and Wildlife Service staff quit in protest, staff that had local knowledge and had served conscientiously enough to get promoted in an extremely contentious region. It made all watchers more cynical about American governance.
At the risk of sounding like a dirty hippie, the Klamath River salmon run has intrinsic value. A salmon river run is a beautiful and structured system that created and feeds living things. It is made of living things, fish with genetic continuity in that region for millennia, big leaping fish. They should not be suffocated and drowned in warm water by the tens of thousands, their bodies left to rot, for the political advancement of a man three thousand miles away.
The Klamath fish kill shut down the West Coast salmon fishery for two years. When salmon return to the ocean, they mix with other river runs; since the Klamath run was endangered and you can’t tell whether you’re taking a Klamath salmon, all salmon fishing was banned for a year and severely abbreviated the next year. Salmon boats were idled; the season was immediately declared a federal disaster and $10M of federal monies were made available to help salmon fishers through the season. Oregon spent $1M in disaster relief; California made $10.2M available in low interest loans. Smaller governments gave money to salmon fishers; Lincoln County gave $75K to help pay moorage fees. That was the immediate response to closed salmon fishery. Five years later, the federal government has approved another $60.4M in aid to the salmon industry. Cheney’s fish kill cost the feds, Oregon and California about $65M.
One possibility is that the 2002 drought would have cost someone that money. It could have been the farmers, who’d have lost a season’s crop. I don’t know what the Klamath irrigators’ loss would have been. But I do know that Cheney’s decision was a transfer of wealth from the salmon industry to Klamath farmers (indemnified, eventually, by every taxpayer in the country). Maybe that is OK. Maybe that is how the United States wants to allocate wealth. But I am very sure that that decision should have been made in public, and it should have been made in accordance with the laws of our country, and it should not have been made specifically to advance Cheney’s political party in a local election.
We’re spending $65M to make the salmon industry whole, but the group who will not be made whole from the Klamath fish kill is the native Indian tribes. Cheney’s fish kill is just one contributor to the collapse of their native fisheries, but the Karuk are very clear. They do not want money. They want salmon. Their descriptions of the 2002 fish kill are wrenching. They value the Klamath and the salmon in ways we do not, and they are hurt when the salmon are hurt.
They are also injured in ways we can understand. The Karuk Tribes are bringing a novel claim against the dams and fish kills on the Klamath; they’ve created the concept of nutritional justice. When the federal government destroys the healthy food source of a dependent tribe, the ramifications of the switch to a crappy modern diet falls on the tribe. Cheney’s fish kill is only a part of the problem, but because of it, the Karuk are sicker, poorer, more alienated from their ways, sadder.
I keep telling you that these decision matter. They seem banal, how much water an irrigation district gets this year. But these are decisions about who will bear costs and hurt and risk. This decision cost the public $65M; cost salmon fishers two years of sitting on land, terrified for their families and way of life; cost nature a gorgeous indigenous fish run; cost the Karuk suffering and food; cost all of us faith that we are governed by laws and not political power consolidation. It matters that we elect people who believe these decisions should be made with a public balancing and acknowledgment of those costs, according to the laws that our representatives passed. It matters that we hold politicians to these standards and make them accountable for the damage they do. Compared to the War in Iraq, the destruction in the Klamath is trivial. But it isn't nothing, and Cheney hurt us all.