A scorching drought and historic anger over the federal government turning off farmers’ taps has led to a combustible situation in Southern Oregon, where members of anti-government activist Ammon Bundy’s network are starting to talk about yet another standoff with the feds.
On the phone with TPM Thursday, Bundy said he was prepared to travel to the area and “bring as many people as I can muster up” with him.
The federal government on May 12 announced that it would be sealing shut a canal that typically delivers irrigation water to well more than 100,000 acres of farmland in the Klamath River Basin, leading to dire predictions not only of crop losses, but also of potential infrastructure damage and mass die-offs of birds and fish down-stream.
The water will stay in Upper Klamath Lake, which is the habitat of two aging populations of sucker fish, the C’waam and Koptu, that are protected by the Endangered Species Act and considered sacred by tribes in the area. Desperate farmers reliant on water from the lake are understandably frantic. The Klamath Tribes said that while they took “zero pleasure” in the news, the federal Bureau of Reclamation “made the only decision reasonably available to it.”
But Bundy and his crew appear to have their eye on elevating the situation to a full-on confrontation over property rights.
“This is the very same thing that happened at the Bundy ranch. It’s the same thing that happened to the Hammonds,” Bundy told TPM over the phone Thursday, referring to two earlier standoffs with federal law enforcement. “It’s the same thing that’s happened to thousands of ranchers, miners, loggers all over the West. It’s the federal government coming in and claiming rights that are not their own and taking them from the rightful people.”
He separately dismissed the multiple competing interests in the region — and factors contributing to the situation— as instruments of government control.
“Those are nice talking points,” Bundy said. “‘Oh, the tribes have rights, too. Oh, the endangered species, what about them? Oh, the drought and climate change.’ Those are liberal talking points that are there, designed to literally strip the people of their rights and to put the power in the government’s hands.”
From Anti-Maskers To Water Protesters
Bundy’s boots on the ground are the local members of his decentralized “Peoples Rights” network, which began essentially as a phone tree to organize demonstrations against COVID-19 orders, and has since spun into activism on a buffet of local grievances.
At first, “we were concerned about, like, mandating mask-wearing, stuff like that,” said Kristen Clark, the Peoples Rights organizer in south central Oregon.
The group also discussed potential shortages of goods like food and toilet paper, Clark said, as well as ham radio operation and homeschooling: “All that, that had to do with COVID-19.”
But in recent weeks, their attention has turned from holding rallies in front of grocery stores to water rights. Grant Knoll, a board member of the Klamath Irrigation District — a “quasi-municipal corporation” that delivers water to tens of thousands of acres — started giving updates to the group about the water tensions.
Around the same time, Knoll and another man, Dan Nielsen, bought a plot of land directly adjacent to the now-sealed “A Canal” headgates. Jefferson Public Radio first reported the pair’s encampment near the canal on Sunday.
Now, Clark and Peoples Rights are helping run a “Water Crisis Info Center” out of a large canvas tent on the property.
‘It Depends On How Far The Bureau Wants To Push’
The situation in Oregon now recalls one 20 years ago, when the Bureau of Reclamation shut off the irrigation tap and farmers from across the country rallied in anger. Farmers in the area managed to force the canal open multiple times as local law enforcement failed to step in. The situation only died down, after several months, with news of the 9/11 attacks.
Nielsen, who was part of the months-long encampment around the canal that year, has not ruled out similar action this time.
“It depends on how far the Bureau wants to push,” he told TPM. “If that’s what they want, that’s what they’re going to get.”
For their part, Peoples Rights’ has urged the Klamath Irrigation District, or KID, to step in and open the canal themselves, staging a protest at a board meeting the day after the federal announcement.
At the tail end of the board meeting, KID executive director Gene Souza told the board he’d received 382 petitions from Peoples Rights to open the A Canal. “And if we ignore their request, they will be calling each of you in response,” he noted.
The following day, KID’s attorney wrote to the federal government, announcing that KID would resume operational control of the canal and other irrigation works under a 1954 contract.
In a letter dated the same day, May 14, a Bureau of Reclamation official warned, “Any attempt to remove the bulkheads could subject the individuals involved to legal consequences.”
‘People Are Worried’
The irrigation district, so far, has not acted. Nor has Peoples Rights or the encampment it’s assisting next to the canal. But the atmosphere in the region is tense.
“People are worried, and these guys march around with guns and play soldier on the weekends, and so there is a real concern for peoples’ safety,” Craig Tucker, a natural resources consultant for the Karuk Tribe, told TPM.
On Thursday, the statewide Peoples Rights lead in Oregon, BJ Soper, addressed a crowd at the encampment, Clark told TPM. Soper is a known entity in Bundy’s circles, and is associated with various armed right-wing groups. He’s also been outspoken on the water issue. In an April video posted to Peoples Rights Oregon’s YouTube page, he referred to an economic package for Klamath Basin irrigators as “a slap in the face” and “forced economic suicide.”
“We’re very concerned about it,” said Chuck Tanner, research director at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which has tracked Peoples Rights for months. “This is a very volatile group. They’ve got a radically anti-democratic vision and ideas about how to use paramilitary activism as a way to advance that. That’s never a good combination.”
Last week, after news of the irrigation shutoff sent a shockwave around the region, the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA), an advocacy group representing several irrigation districts in the area, sent an email newsletter urging that supporters of agriculture “stop intimidating and inappropriate behaviors immediately.”
The newsletter relayed reports that the names and addresses of federal employees with the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that published the decision regarding the canal, had been published on social media, “inviting that anger be directed toward those public servants.”
“There is concern that there could be action this summer that is both inappropriate and damaging to irrigators’ cause,” the newsletter noted. “There are rumors that people are being recruited from other parts of the country to participate in demonstrations. In the past, persons threatening property have represented a tiny fraction of the irrigated acreage in the Klamath Project.”
Bundy told TPM that if local Peoples Rights activists call on him, “if they need me, I’ll be down there, I’ll support them. I’ll bring as many people as I can muster up to come down.”
Tucker told TPM he appreciated the KWUA’s note about outsiders coming into the community and exploiting the situation.
“Those guys need to know they’re not welcome here,” he said.