Irrigators Storm the Fence
By Sean Finnegan
The day began with preparation for an historic meeting with irrigators and businesses in the Klamath Basin. The meeting was to provide proof that irrigators own the land the federal government is currently trespassing on and depriving them of their water, and thus killing the land and the people of Klamath Falls. On the way back to the headgates I passed two signs that were most telling of the current situation in the region.
The meeting began promptly at 4pm and estimates of the crowd range from 500 to 700 irrigators (farmers and ranchers) assembled to hear the proof organizers said they had of ownership.
Barbara Martin went through extensive research and legal material she and others had gathered and presented a compelling case. She passed the information to each one of them and when she was done she asked them if they thought it was their land. And the crowd answered, "Yes!" And when she asked them what they wanted to do with their land they answered, "Take it back!"
After she spoke, Robert Herd, former sheriff for Tehama County, CA. got up and spoke on his experience as a county sheriff who had thrown out federal agents of the ATF, IRS, and EPA who had come in to his county to shake down and otherwise harass his constituency. None of the agencies mentioned had bothered to sign a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) with him when they entered his county. An MOU is a document which is supported by a federal law (written by Helen Chenoweth) which says that federal agents must state their purpose with the sheriff before conducting business in the sheriff’s county. In the case of the IRS agents, sheriff Herd arrested them and confiscated their weapons. Eventually the Attorney General had them released. They decided to donate their weapons to him rather than face ridicule in the press.
Richard Mack, former sheriff in Arizona, spoke next and he made an emotional plea for freedom to the crowd. He led them through the history of ‘peace officers’ and their roles in their communities to the present state where ‘law enforcement officers’ enforce laws while trampling on the rights of the citizens they are paid to protect. He read from the Constitution and even spoke from the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence in the form of a prayer. As he spoke, he punctuated his words with gestures at the federal officers on the other side of the fence and repeatedly referred to them as redcoats. At the end of his speech he had the crowd on its feet.
Following sheriff Mack, a local rancher, Jim Palmer read a statement by Jeff Head, a Real American I know and admire from Emmett, Idaho, who has spent considerable time at the headgates. Jeff’s words, spoken by Jim reinforced the support of the people of this country who have been drawn to the basin to see freedom preserved at any cost. The words rang true, not only for Klamath, but also for the country. It was time to wake up and make a stand.
The last man to speak was Joe Bair, one of the original men to take the headgates, and a man who has stood at the headgates for over 51 days. Having spent time with him, I know him to be a man of commitment and integrity and I know that he wanted the irrigators to make a decision for themselves for once. So when he spoke his message was simple, “It’s up to you to decide what to do today. Make your peace in your hearts and make your decision. I can’t do it for you anymore.
After Joe spoke a few more people tried to talk the crowd out of doing anything foolish but they were heckled and eventually they left the stage. Barbara Martin told them to decide what they wanted to do and if they felt it was time to take back their land that they could get in line at a gate in the fence and follow a young man who was about to deliver the proof of ownership documents and demand the Feds vacate the property. In a unanimous display of strength and community, the farmers and ranchers stood and gathered at the fence that kept them from their water.
Once gathered at the fence, one brave young man who had been at the headgates with the likes of other brave men before, climbed over Stan Thompson’s ladder and calmly walked over no man’s land and delivered the documents to the Rangers and told them they were trespassing and that they would have to leave. They crowd cheered in support.
Not moments after that, others were behind him. Slowly but steadily they went over the fence. Old, young, Indian, farmer, rancher, townspeople, and even the press faced the awesome power of the federal government and took back their ground. Federal agents retreated to the narrow walkway of the headgates and formed a gauntlet to prevent people from entering the gate area and attempt to make another ‘unauthorized release’ of life giving lake water in to the canal.
The numbers began to swell and as they did songs were sung and tears were shed as people embraced and shared a moment they had wanted for many months. They were on the brink of taking back their water and the stewardship for their land that they had shared for over a century with all the fish and wildlife they cared for as much as their crops. It was a joyous celebration of freedom, seldom seen and felt in a country where people who call themselves environmentalists hide behind laws which deprive the animals they seek to protect of the resources needed for life and steal the land from the people who know more about living in harmony with nature than any pencil pusher from Eugene or Portland ever would living in a condo and breathing manufactured air.
People waited patiently to climb the ladder and, as the number grew, some started to make camp as they knew they would be in for another long haul. Meanwhile the gauntlet of federal officers tightened their ranks and were peppered with comments and questions. No one was disrespectful to them and they were invited several times to go home. They never spoke and stood fast guarding a smaller area than they had occupied moments before.
A line was created between the rangers and the people by police barricades and some penetrated it and continued to ask them questions. One woman even took down every one of their names and badge numbers. They never once said a word. They just stood there stone faced and emotionless.
Finally after some time, sheriff Tim Evinger arrived amid cheers and fanfare and entered the headgate area, thus violating federal law, and began to make his way through the crowd. He ended up face to face with the federal officers and exchanged words with them. He was asked repeatedly by the people if he was going to throw the feds out and he responded by saying the he would need a court order to do so and when he received it he would act. He was surrounded by his supporters and questioned and embraced by the farmers and ranchers who had asked him to make the stand with them. Moments after he requested the court order cell phones were buzzing to judges in the area. Time will tell if the court order arrives.
A table and chairs were brought over the fence and eventually dinner was served as it always is at the headgates albeit this time a little closer to the water. Hotdogs and beans. While the meal was being served signs of a shifting of ‘Camp Headgate’ from the parking lot to the area beyond the fence could be seen. And one bit of irony was observed as I noticed that the farmers had taken the gate. The gate in the fence was gone from it’s hinges and in it’s place was an empty space that the people of Klamath Falls passed through from their community to their land and their water. And watching over this gap was the one man who couldn’t pass through. Stan Thompson, respecting his federal restraining order, watched as others came and went from the one place he couldn’t go.
And as I watched the sunset at the headgates I was reminded of the words of Charlton Heston as said by Helen Chenoweth-Hage at Freedom Day, “I wish for you the courage to be unpopular. Popularity is history’s pocket change. And courage is history’s true currency.” I saw a lot of courage in Klamath Falls today. And I’m proud that I was there to see it expressed by farmers and ranchers in a small town in Oregon without water. For now.
God Bless you all.
Sean Finnegan for Sierra Times
Klamath Falls, Oregon
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