Righting environmental and historical wrongs in the Klamath Basin

Words by Alex Schwartz, Photos by Arden Barnes

Herald and News / Report for America

Photos from near the mouth of the Klamath River in Klamath, Calif., on Sept. 21, 2021.

The town of Klamath, California, is located near the mouth of the Klamath River.

We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.

—Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Most people in the Klamath Basin agree that restoring streams, wetlands and forests is a more effective way to revive species and communities than fighting over a dwindling water supply.

Re-empowering nature to store and filter water doesn’t often require anyone to give up their share of it.

But first, stakeholders must meaningfully address the basin’s uncomfortable history and reconcile two cultures that seem at odds with each other. Until farmers, ranchers and tribal members can agree on how to do that, many say there’s little hope for eliminating the physical chokepoints that harm the watershed.

In August 2021, the Klamath Falls Equity Task Force presented recommendations to city council on how to promote equity in the area. One of the first items was recognizing the role of racism in the Klamath Basin water crisis.

“Our water crisis still exists, in part, due to racism against the Tribes and that racism against the Tribes still exists, in part, due to our water crisis,” wrote the task force.

Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council, speaks during the public comment portion of the council meeting on Aug. 2, 2021, in Klamath Falls, Ore.

Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council, speaks during the public comment portion of the council meeting on Aug. 2, 2021, in Klamath Falls, Oregon. The meeting began with recommendations made by the Klamath Falls equity task force.

At the city council meeting where the task force made its recommendations, several Klamath tribal members made public comments about how they’ve experienced anti-Indigenous behavior in the basin.

“There are communities worldwide that deal with drought, but this is one of the only communities where drought is really just focused around racism and blaming the Tribes for what’s going on, when really what we’ve been doing is rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” said Klamath tribal council member Willa Powless. The city has since disbanded the equity task force and has not carried out its recommendations related to the Klamath Basin water crisis.

Before it became the site of heated conflict over water, the head of the Link River and the southern shore of Upper Klamath Lake was first known as Eulalona. The Modoc village — believed to be the largest in the area and an important regional trading post — spanned both sides of a river teeming with fish and birds.

At the end of a long, harsh winter, the Upper Basin’s sucker runs jump-started the yearly seasonal gathering cycle for Indigenous people. Millions of C’waam, Koptu and other sucker species headed for clear streams and springs to spawn. Chinook salmon came in early summer and again in fall, when they were dried and smoked by the thousands on the riverbanks.

Roots like camas and wild celery were ready to be dug in the spring, and seed pods of wocus (a type of large pond lily) matured among the lake’s tule marshes in summer to be dried and ground into a flour-like powder. Berries ripened in the mountains by late summer, and cooler fall temperatures drove hunting parties into forests to hunt deer and elk. All the preserved meat, fish and plants would provide a food supply once winter set in.

This seasonality, which drove the value system of Klamath and Modoc peoples for thousands of years, fell apart with the arrival of Europeans. The federal government forced tribal people who didn’t succumb to introduced diseases or warfare with settlers onto the newly created Klamath Indian Reservation or even out east to Oklahoma.

Tribal members dealt with gross federal mismanagement of their reservation. The government took their children and shipped them off to boarding schools — two of which were on the reservation — that beat their culture out of them. The 1887 Allotment Act allowed non-Natives to begin settling reservation lands, forcing many Native people to abandon traditional lifeways and become farmers and ranchers.

Clayton Dumont, a Klamath Tribal Council member, speaks in favor of the Equity Task Force's final report and proposed solutions during the public comment portion of the council meeting on Aug. 2, 2021, in Klamath Falls, Ore.

Clayton Dumont, a Klamath Tribal Council member, speaks in favor of the Equity Task Force’s final report and proposed solutions during the public comment portion of the council meeting on Aug. 2, 2021, in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Outside the reservation, ecological destruction continued. Tule and Lower Klamath lakes, fringed by tens of thousands of acres of shallow wetlands, once contained massive populations of C’waam and Koptu that were decimated when the Bureau of Reclamation drained them. Wetlands throughout Upper Klamath Lake met the same fate, while the construction of Link River Dam allowed the Bureau of Reclamation to take the level of the lake to higher and lower extremes. Places of water that had been central to Indigenous life in the basin changed beyond recognition or completely disappeared.

But despite the obstacles, the Klamath Tribes used a wealth of knowledge about their forests to conduct a sustainable timber harvest operation that made them the second-wealthiest tribe in the country by the early 1950s. Believing the Tribes had been successful enough to assimilate into Western society, the federal government decided to terminate the Tribes’ treaty and their status as a sovereign Indian Nation, withdrawing all the public services it was providing to tribal members and dissolving the tribal government.

Termination devastated the Tribal community and opened up more land along Upper Klamath Lake tributaries to ranching and logging. The Army Corps of Engineers diked and channelized the Sprague River and removed its riparian vegetation, and cattle eroded its banks. The U.S. sold 90,000 acres of forest to timber companies while condemning the rest into a portion of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. The logging continued.

Tribal members have since restored their federal status, but not their land base. After a dark period between 1954 and 1986, when alcoholism, depression, suicide and infant mortality plagued the community, the Klamath Tribes ‘returned’ to a basin radically changed. The C’waam and Koptu, which had sustained them for millennia, had declined precipitously — they weren’t there to greet tribal members after the long winter of termination.

The Tribes closed their sucker fishery in 1986, and two years later the species were listed as endangered. 

“It’s something that my father once told me: The worst affliction that was brought to our people wasn’t diphtheria, smallpox, whooping cough — it was the concept of greed,” said Perry Chocktoot, culture and heritage director for the Klamath Tribes.

Perry Chocktoot, Klamath Tribes Culture & Heritage Director, at Moore Park on Oct. 26, 2021.

Perry Chocktoot, Klamath Tribes Culture & Heritage Director, at Moore Park on Oct. 26, 2021. The park and its surroundings along the southern shore of Upper Klamath Lake sits on the site of Eulalona, once one of the largest villages in the Upper Klamath Basin and a regional trading post.

Then 2001 happened: During extreme drought, water went to fish and shut off the Klamath Project for the first time. The cracks between Native and non-Native communities in the Upper Basin burst open, and prejudice bubbled to the surface. Despite the fact that their people originated the very name that adorns countless signs, businesses and documents in the basin, some members of the Klamath Tribes haven’t felt welcome in their homelands since.

“I can’t understand how anybody who was aware could look at something so complicated, so obviously deeply interwoven, and think ‘Well, I’m just going to go in and make wholesale changes to that and it’ll be for the betterment of everybody,’” said Klamath Tribal Councilman Clay Dumont. “To me, that’s foolish. It’s arrogant. And then we’re vilified for pointing that out.”

Growing up, Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry didn’t think much of how different things used to be in the basin before it was modified to support agriculture. His father had driven cattle on Klamath Marsh and he married into a ranching family. He certainly didn’t consider himself a cowboy, but he always felt comfortable in ag-dominated spaces.

“It was kind of a part of what was here,” he said. “Since that time, my view has really changed because of the loss of the resources and the impacts on what we have.”

The summer of 2001 first made Gentry feel like an outsider. On trips to the local tool shop or ag supply store, he started to notice more people glaring at him. He saw signs and bumper stickers and witnessed conversations that vilified the Tribes, blaming them for the water shutoff. He realized he had never felt this uneasy around non-Natives before. In the decades since, things haven’t improved much.

“I don’t even feel comfortable going into Klamath Falls,” Gentry said. “It doesn’t even feel like my community anymore.”

Klamath Basin suckers: From ‘table’ to ‘trash’

After the 2001 water shutoff, farmers were mad. They protested at the headgates of the A Canal and in downtown Klamath Falls, passing a symbolic bucket of water from the Link River to the waterways feeding the project. A group of irrigators forced open the A Canal headgates multiple times before federal marshals quickly turned them off again. 

The Sept. 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., ended the demonstrations. But the protests worked — the Bush Administration released a small amount of water later in the summer and prioritized farmers during the following summer’s drought.

The shutoff was, understandably, the talk of the town. A flurry of letters to the editor arrived at the Herald and News, some from people outside the Klamath Basin, to weigh in on the issue. Most writings lamented the Endangered Species Act, some going so far as to accuse the federal government of using the basin’s fish as a weapon to initiate “rural cleansing.” People questioned whether the species were actually endangered and attacked the science used to justify keeping water in the lake and river.

Most letters had one thing in common: They took their anger out on the C’waam and Koptu. 

“I say save the farmers and let the fish suck mud, as they have for millions of years,” wrote one Lakeview resident.

“One family is worth more than a million suckerfish,” declared a letter-writer from Redmond.

One submission pejoratively called the fish a “bottom feeder.” Another dubbed them “worthless.”

“We’ve been suckered,” read another letter. And there was the all-too-popular use of “trash fish.”

Others challenged the importance of the fish as a food source.

“Why would any intelligent person sacrifice the life of a human for the life of a no-good trash fish?” wrote another. “No one eats it.”

“The only thing the Indians used sucker fish for was fertilizer for their corn,” someone else argued, adding sarcastically, “That can’t be right. I’m sure that they are tasty.”

“In the olden days the sucker fish was dried for winter food supply,” one person wrote. “Today it is not an option! Burger King and McDonald’s are close by and open late!” 

Another writer went straight for the Tribes, mocking their spiritual connection with the C’waam and Koptu:

“Maybe the farmers can get together and tell Congress that they’re members of the Dirt Lover Tribe, that the potato is sacred and endangered so they too can have a little to say about what happens around here. If nothing else maybe they will get free housing, medical, dental, year-round hunting privileges and who knows what else.”

Responding to that letter, a Klamath tribal member urged the community to consider the basin’s lengthy and fraught tribal history and not to blame the Tribes for the farmers’ plight.

“I am so tired of this humiliation we are receiving — like that’s going to change the weather for the farmers,” he wrote.

The disdain for the suckers made it all the way to The New York Times, which referred to them as “all-but-inedible.”

“The suckerfish, listed as an endangered species since 1988, is also a perfect target for the conservatives who previously delighted in ridiculing the snail darter and the spotted owl, which at least had the advantage of being an appealing creature,” the article read.

Suckers’ unpopularity extended beyond the pages of this newspaper. Signs deriding C’waam and Koptu popped up around Klamath Falls. To show support for farmers, businesses served “sucker fish sandwiches” made with cod and even refused to serve water to tribal members. A pair of farmers created a “Sucker Beer,” selling $6,000-worth of symbolically empty bottles (there was, after all, no water and no barley to be found in the basin that summer) to contribute to the Klamath Water Foundation. 

Driving around town, you can still see the occasional bumper sticker or yard sign that says “Some sucker stole my water” or “Here’s your water, sucker,” accompanying a cartoon man peeing on a fish.

In late July 2001, a letter urged people to educate themselves on the water issue. The writer said tribal members had been approached in public that summer by “rude, angry, ignorant people voicing their frustrations and placing blame where it does not belong.”

The rhetoric turned violent one December afternoon, when three men drunkenly drove through the town of Chiloquin, the seat of the Klamath Tribes and the traditional home of many of their members, shooting BB rifles and yelling racial epithets. They shot up a portable toilet and damaged two school crossing signs.

“Sucker lovers come out and fight,” they shouted. The county sheriff’s office arrested them 18 days later. 

Chocktoot, the Tribes’ culture and heritage director, was working for the city of Chiloquin at the time and witnessed the incident. He said the men even verbally accosted children getting off a school bus, asking them if they were “Indian.”

“They definitely didn’t have respect for us as a Tribe,” Chocktoot said. “To me, it showed a distinct division between the farming communities and the tribal communities.”

A few tribal members wrote letters to the editor in defense of the C’waam and Koptu, though they were largely drowned out by the deluge of submissions furious at the shutoff.

“I love sucker meat and miss being able to fish for them,” one wrote. “I’m a sucker lover and proud of it.” 

Tulelake Refuge Tour looking for birds with Botulism. Sept. 15, 2021.

A young sucker at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gone Fishing hatchery facility on October 7, 2020. The hatchery is working to raise suckers to an age that allows them to survive water quality swings in Upper Klamath Lake. Photo by Alex Schwartz

The vitriol directed at suckers is a relatively new phenomenon — in fact, writings in the Herald and News and its predecessors, along with newspapers throughout the region, largely sang the C’waam and Koptu’s praises until the late 20th century. The fish provided one of the most reliable food supplies for the basin’s early settlers, and their distinct quality and unmatched quantity were known for hundreds of miles.

A March 1921 article in the Klamath Evening Herald described an early spring day at the Lost River Dam, which was “alive with fishermen, both Indians and white men.” They were there to catch mullet, a colloquial name for suckers throughout the early part of the last century, which ran up the Lost River “by the thousands and thousands.”

At that time, the “splendid” fish were so plentiful that no state game laws existed to protect them, so people could pluck them from the water however they pleased. Few had success with hooks, instead taking after the Klamaths and Modocs by spearing them or scooping them up with nets.

“The Indians, figuratively speaking, are making hay while the sun shines, sun-drying and curing these fish for their winter larder, but many people find them delicacies in the truest sense, and prefer them to salmon and trout. In fact, in taste, they are somewhat similar to either of these fish, the flesh being firm, in contrast to what is known as the sucker family, in which some people place them.

Boneless, except for the big bone with the smaller ones attached which runs along the back, this fish is for this reason a great favorite. It is not necessary to scale them either, as the best way to prepare them for the table is to remove the skin in one operation. The average weight of these fish is perhaps four pounds, and ten minutes’ fishing will provide meals for a big family for several days.”

Klamath Evening Herald, March 1921

In 1962, a Herald and News article referenced a March 1900 story from the old Klamath Republican, which attempted to describe the sheer number of fish that ran up the Upper Basin’s rivers each spring:

“One may walk across on their backs from shore to shore, dry shod, but perhaps this is slightly exaggerated.”

In fact, that may not have been too much of an embellishment. In 1902, the Weekly Rogue River Courier reported so many suckers running the Lost River at Olene Gap that people used them to cross the river instead of the adjacent bridge built by the county “because they say it is solider”:

“The only accident in years that has occurred there was when one of the citizens tried to drive across on the suckers in a strong wind storm, when the fish were blown apart and in the rebound caught in the horses and threw them with such force that they became entangled and upset the wagon.”

Weekly Rogue River Courier, March 1902

The 1962 story also reported that settlers had established sucker canneries around the turn of the 20th century, one on an island in the Link River and another on the Lost River. With the Modocs and Klamaths forced to fish only on the reservation, “the white man used his knowledge to increase his income.” 

The Lost River cannery, owned by J.D. Whitman of Medford, got washed out by a flood just before it was set to begin operations. Later on, a San Francisco company investigated opening up another cannery to process the fish exclusively for cat food.

“They are … excellent for table purposes,” the Medford Mail Tribune reported in 1908. “Should the canning of these fish prove a success it will open up a new industry for this county.”

It was agriculture, however, that eventually became Klamath County’s dominant industry — but C’waam and Koptu even contributed to that, too. During the early days of settlement, the fish runs conveniently coincided with the planting season, so some farmers and ranchers would skewer them with pitchforks and use them as fertilizer for their crops. Before Lower Klamath Lake dried up, ranchers in that area caught spawning suckers migrating up Sheepy Creek to feed their hogs.

Newspaper archives even hint at how overfishing by settlers may have contributed to the decline in sucker populations. A Herald and News article in 1959 explained that, despite people traveling all the way to Chiloquin from Klamath Falls to buy fresh suckers from the Williamson River Store and considering fish a “top dish,” state fish and game officials considered mullet a “trash fish.” That designation only meant the species weren’t targeted for catching regulations, not that they were unfit for consumption.

For two years, regulators did require anglers to catch mullet only by hook and line, but anglers lobbied the state game commission to remove the rule and re-designate suckers as  “trash fish” so they could keep snagging them. The state fish and game commission caved and gave reasoning for why: “Mullet, if not diminished by fishermen, will soon multiply to the exclusion of other fish.”

Catching the tail end of the fishery in his youth, tribal chairman Don Gentry didn’t remember anyone holding negative opinions about C’waam and Koptu the way they did in 2001.

“It was never like they were less than, because people were catching them and eating them,” he said.

Sacramento Valley, California on Aug. 13, 2021.

An adult sucker attempts to spawn at Sucker Spring, on the eastern shoreline of Upper Klamath Lake, on April 16, 2021. If water levels in the lake are too low, the fish can’t access the gravel they hope to lay their eggs in. Photo by Alex Schwartz

In his 2006 book River of Renewal: Myth and History in the Klamath Basin, historian Stephen Most discussed the broader community’s flip-flop in opinion on the suckers. He mentioned some 2001 protestors’ connections with Wise Use Movement activists, who turned the water issue into a property rights issue and needed a scapegoat where people could direct their anger: 

“Just as during the struggle over logging and the spotted owl, when Wise Use publicists used the image of the owl-as-job-killer to promote the interests of the forest industry, during the Bucket Brigade, they deployed the ugly suckerfish as poster child to accompany their fish-against-farmers rhetoric.”

Alex Gonyaw, senior fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes, doesn’t think the suckers are ugly.

Sure, they’re not as iconic and aesthetically pleasing as salmon or trout, but they have wide bodies, white bellies and dark backs shimmering with gold and green. Their only unusual feature is a downturned mouth, engineered to vacuum tiny organisms off the bottom of Upper Klamath Lake.

A phospherous conveyor belt

C’waam and Koptu aren’t just important to Klamath and Modoc culture. Klamath Tribes Fisheries Biologist Alex Gonyaw thinks not enough people in the Klamath Basin are aware of the species’ crucial role in the complex natural tapestry of Upper Klamath Lake.

“They did not exist in a vacuum and were an important part of maintaining water quality and ecosystem function,” he said.

Suckers act like an army of Roombas, grazing the bottom of the lake and consuming its excess nutrients. Phosphorus that naturally entered the lake was consumed by diatoms, the “good” kind of green algae that was ingested by invertebrates such as aquatic worms, leeches and even the infamous Klamath midges, which begin their lives as larvae on the lakebed.

C’waam and Koptu consume lake bottom ooze, filtering out sediment and digesting the invertebrates contained within. To make up for the loss of energy at each stage of the food chain, Gonyaw estimates a single fish would have had to consume as much as 10 times its weight in invertebrates. Those invertebrates, in turn, would have to absorb 10 times their own weight in algae. 

The incomprehensible amount of phosphorus consumed by millions of suckers would then be transported out of the lake during spawning season, where individual fish would be plucked from the water by humans and animals. Over time, the phosphorus contained within each decaying or digested fish would return back to the soils, which streams and runoff would slowly erode back into the lake to start the cycle all over again.

Declining sucker populations have likely accelerated the hypereutrophication of Upper Klamath Lake and the dominance of toxic algae, which has killed off more fish in a vicious feedback loop. Gonyaw said that makes reviving the species all the more important to anyone who doesn’t enjoy the foul smell and scummy appearance of the lake in late summer.

“One of the reasons the lake is a toxic mess is that the mechanism by which phosphorus was removed from the lake and placed back on the landscape is largely gone with the demise of the C’waam and Koptu,” Gonyaw said.

The fish may have even helped keep midge populations in check. The pesky insects’ guts litter the windshields of anyone who drives along the lake’s shoreline between May and October. They are not mentioned as a problem until the 1930s, around the same time a “queer form of algae” (likely the Aphanizomenon flos-aquae cyanobacteria that dominates the lake today) was first reported in the lake. In 1932, the presence of the algae was believed to be linked to a die-off of suckers in the lake.

Locals brought several researchers to Klamath Falls to investigate the cause of the midge explosion. The scientists linked it to lower numbers of fish that would normally have kept the larvae populations in check, believing the algae drove them away. The decade’s consistent, severe drought was also believed to play a role, concentrating predatory birds onto Upper Klamath Lake that overconsumed its fish.

“Restoring the fish would also mean restoring the linkage between the trophic levels and the landscape as a whole,” Gonyaw said. “At the moment, that linkage is broken and faltering.”

There’s also the name, “sucker,” which naturally has a negative connotation — it doesn’t help that, in this context, some view the fish as literally sucking their water away. Perhaps not seeing any C’waam and Koptu in the wild for 50 years and hearing them called “suckerfish” has made people’s imaginations run wild, envisioning the fish as gnarled, deformed bottomfeeders when, in reality, they just look like normal fish.

“If we were talking about the last 5,400 bald eagles, people would be screaming their heads off to save them,” Gonyaw said. “It shouldn’t come down to cultural values — they have an inherent right to exist.”

Tanks of c’waam and koptu fill the Klamath Tribes Hatchery in Chiloquin, Ore., on July 29, 2021.

Tanks of C’waam and Koptu fill the Klamath Tribes Hatchery in Chiloquin, Ore., on July 29, 2021.

Chocktoot thinks, on some level, people who put down the fish are just trying to put down the Tribes who value them.

“They weren’t talking out of knowledge. They were talking out of speculation and out of ignorance,” he said. “And out of hatred — not only for that ecosystem indicator, but for the people that survived on it for thousands of years.”

Twenty years after 2001, there’s comparatively less hateful language publicly directed at C’waam and Koptu, and agricultural leaders broadly respect their importance in tribal culture and recognize the need to revive the species.

The Klamath Water Users Association has even partnered with the Tribes on various sucker recovery and monitoring efforts. Popular rhetoric on the water management side has shifted from “Who cares about these fish?” to “These lake level requirements aren’t bringing the fish back.”

“The wellbeing of the fish is important, period,” said KWUA Executive Director Paul Simmons.

He thinks much of the sucker rhetoric during 2001 was directed toward the federal government and the ESA rather than the Tribes. Many people failed to make the connection that the fish are culturally important to the Tribes and that, even if the ESA were out of the picture, the federal government would still have a Constitutionally-enshrined trust responsibility to maintain a viable fishery in accordance with the Tribes’ 1864 treaty.

But the feeling that “a sucker took my water” — and all the myths it conjures — is still present among some farmers and ranchers who believe a fish is being valued more than their livelihoods. It was certainly present at the red-and-white tent set up this summer by a fringe group of irrigators connected to Ammon Bundy. Multiple speakers there relayed the same vague anecdote about a fishing trip with an “Indian friend” who caught a sucker and promptly released it because it was so worthless to them.

Much of the negative words still said about C’waam and Koptu in public now pepper the comments section of the Herald and News Facebook page: Disdain for sucker hatchery efforts, calling the fish “useless.” You don’t have to scroll far to find someone expressing contempt for suckers, and even for the Klamath Tribes who value them.

“We didn’t walk in their shoes,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance and former executive director of KWUA. “There’s so many things that are said that are probably so harmful and hurtful to them, but we don’t even know that it’s happening.”

One woman wrote to the Herald and News in September 2001, just before the protests came to a halt. She praised her son and relatives for being part of a group that had jumped the fence and forced open the headgates. 

But most of her ire remained directed at the federal government, and she mentioned knowing some tribal members in the basin’s ag community who were personally hurt by the water shutoff. She then acknowledged the importance of the suckers to the Tribes and called for peace.

“I hope this will not cause bitterness with the tribe. There are many good people in the Klamath Tribes,” she wrote. “Truth of it all, the government has lied to the Klamath Tribes and also the farmers.”

Slow water, quiet people

The best place for Becky Hyde to keep her cattle this summer was on a ranch in the tiny town of Brothers, Oregon. Out on the high desert southeast of Bend, with just 12 inches of precipitation a year, it makes the Klamath Basin look lush.

But in 2021, the Hyde family’s ranches along the Upper Williamson and Sycan rivers felt less like Eden and more like the apocalypse.

Becky Hyde on her family's ranch featuring land by the Sycan River near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 24, 2021.

Becky Hyde stands on her family’s ranch, which features land by the Sycan River on Sept. 24, 2021.

Exceptional drought led the Klamath Tribes, the senior water right holders in the basin, to make calls on the rivers’ instream flows that prevented almost every other landowner above Upper Klamath Lake from diverting from them to irrigate their pastures. Ranchers started buying hay to feed their cattle months before normal.

Grasshoppers, driven by warmer, drier winters, infested pockets of the Upper Basin in the early summer and consumed nearly every crop and wild forage in their path. 

It all came to a head in July, when the Bootleg Fire exploded north of Beatty, ripping through the Upper Sprague and Sycan watersheds. The fire produced its own weather, including rainless thunderstorms and even a tornado. The sky above Hyde’s nephew’s Yamsi Ranch, near the headwaters of the Williamson, glowed a dark orange for weeks, choked by smoke. Sprinklers watered the roof so the embers of burnt trees flying through the air wouldn’t catch the house on fire.

Hyde said the Bootleg spread so fast and burned so hot that she and her nephews couldn’t round up all the cattle from their grazing permit on the Fremont-Winema National Forest, the south end of which was torched by the fire. They ended up losing 70-pair of cows and calves — some were completely burned and already dead, but others were injured so severely that they had to be put down. Hyde said rescuers found a mountain lion, which can run up to 50 miles an hour, burned up along with the cows.

Klamath Falls had an orange hue due to the layer of smoke covering the sun on Aug. 4, 2021.

An orange hue created by a layer of smoke covering a sun-shrouded Klamath Falls on Aug. 4, 2021.

This fire — this Klamath Basin — was different from what Hyde knew 30 years ago when she first moved here.

“We are living in the Old Testament this year with fire, plague, grasshoppers, drought — the only thing we haven’t had yet is flood,” Hyde said. “Yet ….”

Much of the fate of the Klamath watershed hinges on how fast and how much we can clean Upper Klamath Lake and rehabilitate sucker populations. That will require restoring some of the lake’s own wetlands and significantly reducing the amount of nutrients flowing in from its heavily eroded tributaries.

The rivers did this naturally. Their lazy curves and shallow channels made them lose quite a bit of flow to their adjacent floodplains during periods of high water. Sediment-laden spring floods would wash over the valley, where wetland plants would filter out nutrients before the water meandered downstream to the lake or percolated into the ground. Federal engineers, aiming to open up more land adjacent to the river to grazing, changed that.

Thanks to channelization, diking and the removal of riparian vegetation by the Army Corps in the 1950s, the river here is both wider and deeper than it was naturally. Once-lush banks that used to catch and accumulate phosphorus-laden sediment now fast-track it into Upper Klamath Lake. The rivers have become too efficient, exacerbating water quality problems.

The cliff-like banks also prevent water from reaching the valley’s natural floodplain and recharging the shallow ground aquifer in the spring. As with lands in the Klamath Project, the federal government’s goal up here was to keep water off the landscape to facilitate agriculture.

“The government said, ‘Tear out all your willows and we’re straightening the channel,’ and so we did that — for miles and miles and miles down this river,” Hyde said. “We are having that spring flush of water, and it’s coming down all at once, then it’s just gone.”

Now, Hyde said it’s time to bring back complexity and slow down the water. By planting willows and sedges along the bank, which slowly collect sediment, and preventing cows from grazing on riparian plants during the summer, she’s helping to regrow the natural, gentler grade of the riverbank, allowing the Sycan to spill over into the field when there is enough water. It’s a passive kind of restoration that takes years to produce results but lets the river do most of the work.

“Over a very long time, you’re building this up so it can access its historic floodplain again,” she said. “You can do really expensive restoration, but you can also do it this other way where you can impact lots and lots of miles of river without as much money. We need both.”

Becky Hyde on her family's ranch featuring land by the Sycan River near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 24, 2021.

Construction equipment is being used on Becky Hyde’s family ranch in a restoration project to reconnect an oxbow pond with the Sycan River.

Just a short walk downstream, an excavator was finishing several weeks of a more active restoration project on the easement, in partnership with the Klamath Tribes, Intermountain West Joint Venture, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It will reconnect an old oxbow pond with the adjacent bend in the Sycan. The river (and its sediment) will wash into the pond, filling it up for the spring and slowly releasing water back into the river and the soil throughout the summer. 

“It’s potentially going to hold a ton of water up here,” Hyde said.

When Hyde thinks about the shifts in hydrology that accompany climate change, her focus goes to storing water — not necessarily through dams or other feats of engineering, but by restoring the land’s natural ability to hold and slowly release it. The system evolved to mellow out the peaks and troughs of wet winters and dry summers by storing and spreading water out over time. Increasing that natural resiliency can help it weather more extreme water years.

“I feel like I’ve been thinking about the capture, storage and safe release of water for most of my adult life, and to me that is the key to adaptive management around climate change,” Hyde said. 

But that kind of restoration takes money that won’t be directed to the basin without a long-term plan for sustainability — and that plan won’t happen without cooperation among groups of people that carry an immense amount of baggage.

They’ve done it before, with the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement that was signed in 2010 but died in Congress five years later. That agreement would have allocated around $200 million in federal funding to improve water quality in Upper Klamath Lake, with a strategic plan to fence, plant and remove dikes throughout the Sprague River Valley. The only thing that’s missing now is the funding.

“This stuff is known,” said Stan Swerdloff, aquatics director for the Klamath Tribes. “If people would stop fighting with each other over water and start correcting the problem, which means everybody banding together and getting Congress to provide the money, it’s not magic. It’s not rocket science. This is basic restoration work.”

The KBRA is both a sign of hope and a hindrance to progress for Hyde. The negotiations (and the years of relationship-building that led up to them) demonstrated that meaningful partnerships can be formed in the basin, but many of those crumbled after the agreement failed and parties turned back down the path of litigation. Many now see each other in courtrooms more often than at tables.

“I think there are many things that have been done in this basin, and there is so much more, if we had friendship among people again, that we could be doing,” Hyde said. “We will always work with our neighbors, the Klamath Tribes. We want to be good neighbors and we want to restore land, but a lot of cooperation in the region has been lost.”

Hyde herself still regularly speaks to folks on all sides of the water issue. But it’s hard to have meaningful conversations when everyone is holed up in their respective corners, trying to weather the disaster of drought and struggling to take care of themselves, let alone their neighbors.

Becky Hyde on her family's ranch featuring land by the Sycan River near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 24, 2021.

Becky Hyde points out towards the Sycan River while on her family’s ranch near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 24, 2021.

Crisis also tends to favor the loudest, most extreme voices, Hyde said. She’s glad the “Bundy circus” tent has left the A Canal headgates without a murmur. She feels the people there didn’t represent the basin’s agricultural community and contributed to negative stereotypes about rural people.

“I guess I’m waiting for the quiet people, and you can’t find the quiet people when we’re at our most stressed,” she said.

East of Yainax Ranch, near Bly, Hyde pointed out a section of the Sprague River that had been fenced off to cattle and replanted with riparian vegetation. It was a start, she remarked. But a levee still confined it to an unnatural channel with little room to breathe. Without connecting the river back to its floodplain, the stream will still move and erode more quickly than it should, putting a damper on any benefits the fencing and vegetation would have provided.

“This river is trying to heal right here, but it’s healing within the channel that’s been created,” she said.

Becky Hyde on her family's ranch featuring land by the Sycan River near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 24, 2021.

Becky Hyde explains how the restoration project on her family’s ranch will reconnect an oxbow pond to the Sycan River on Sept. 24, 2021.

For Hyde, and for many others in the basin who feel the emotional sting of drought beyond the biblical fires, cracked earth and insect plagues, meaningful relationships are the foundation to the landscape-scale restoration effort that must be undertaken here. Otherwise, we’ll just be fencing a river without setting it free.

“Be adaptive, be resilient, but be together. Because you can’t adapt quickly when no one’s communicating with each other,” Hyde said. “We can’t heal the land here until we heal the people.”

Return of the forest

Northeast of Beatty, Ore., an area known as the Black Hills burned hot and fast during the early days of the Bootleg Fire. Klamath Tribes Natural Resources Director Steve Rondeau sees proof here that a better style of forest management is possible — and necessary.

As part of the Black Hills Vegetation Management Project on the Fremont-Winema National Forest, crews thinned a thousand acres of overgrown forest into clumps of old trees, young trees and ground vegetation about four years ago. In April 2021, the Forest Service conducted a prescribed burn on about a third of the thinned area, further reducing flammable material and protecting the old ponderosa pines that stood sentinel over the forest. 

When the Bootleg blaze died down and the smoke began to clear, Rondeau returned to the forest to see how it fared. Much of the thinned area resembled the desolate landscape all-too-common in the era of megafires: Naked, coal-colored trees that rose like matchsticks from lunar-like soil. 

The Bootleg Fire will have major negative impacts on the Klamath watershed.  Sept. 13, 2021.

The Bootleg Fire damaged over 400,000 acres of forest––the area on the left side of this image was treated as part of the Black Hills Vegetation Management Project.

But on the other side of the gravel road, the 335-acre triangle that had been burned intentionally was a green island in the Black Hills. Though the crowning fire had toasted the needles of the exterior trees as it moved through the plot, it quickly mellowed and confined itself mostly to the forest floor. 

Stately ponderosas a few paces deeper into the triangle appeared healthy as ever, their kelly-green needles and ochre bark providing a welcome pop of color in a landscape seemingly devoid of life. Even some ground vegetation remained, providing forage for deer and elk.

For Rondeau, this comparatively tiny area surviving one of the largest infernos in Oregon’s history was a vindication of what he’s been working on with the Tribes for eight years: A deliberate combination of ecologically-focused thinning and prescribed burning to bring resiliency back to the forest.

“There was work done out here, and the work that was done prevented that place from burning down,” Rondeau said. “It was going to be one of those situations where I’d say ‘I told you so’ or ‘Oops, we’ve got to change.’ And this is an ‘I told you so’ place.”

Based on investigations into historical forest composition prior to fire suppression and logging, the Tribes thinned in such a way that would leave relatively dense clusters of mixed-height vegetation. Instead of eliminating all ladder fuels and creating what foresters call “vertical spacing” to prevent a ground fire from reaching up into the forest crown, Rondeau said this project focused on producing gaps between tree clusters, creating “horizontal space” that could slow an already crowning fire. 

Prior to colonization, Rondeau said the forest was made up of small communities of mixed vegetation that grew far enough away from each other so as not to spread fire from one to the next. Following the Tribes’ termination and the end of their sustained yield operations, the Forest Service planted trees of the same age in an equidistant grid, eliminating that complexity.

“All of these plants had a strategy with fire, because fire came first. When you do a plantation and you space stuff perfectly, you create a consistent layer where, if fire gets in, it’s going to run,” Rondeau said. “That’s why you break it up.”

in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 13, 2021.

Klamath Tribes Natural Resources Director Steve Rondeau in the Fremont-Winema National Forest on Sept. 13, 2021.

It didn’t help that grazing cattle consumed most riparian plants, facilitating the invasion of flammable, water-sucking lodgepole pines that increased fire danger. The near-extirpation of beavers also prevented the forest from naturally holding water in the form of wet meadows and gentle drainages, increasing erosion in wet periods and making the forest drier during droughts.

The Bootleg provided a real-time experiment to see how the forest would respond to the treatments, and the results were promising. The Tribes applied the same treatment philosophy to the Nature Conservancy’s Sycan Marsh Preserve to the north, which mellowed fire behavior so starkly that it helped fire crews contain the inferno’s spread.

“It’s really hard to believe that something so distinct can happen, but I just can’t imagine bringing someone out here and them saying, ‘OK, that was wrong to do prescribed fire,’” Rondeau said.

Moreover, the fully treated plots’ success in the midst of exceptional drought and a 413,000-acre megafire suggest these practices can even stand up to climate change, which is fanning the flames fueled by overgrown, unhealthy forests.

“I’ve learned over time to never rule out our natural systems. They can heal, and they can heal fast, surprisingly. You hear people talk about climate change, how it’s just going to burn everything up anyway and we’re wasting our time,” Rondeau said. “No. We can do something about it.”

Because much of the Fremont-Winema National Forest sits on former Klamath Reservation land, the U.S. Forest Service entered into a master stewardship agreement in 2011 with the Klamath Tribes, along with the Nature Conservancy and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, to give them more agency in managing and restoring the forest. Ever so slowly, the partnership is helping the land heal itself.

“We agreed to this master stewardship agreement so that the Tribes could get involved with the treatment and apply our philosophy out here,” Rondeau said. “All you simply have to do in terms of the environment is go back a couple hundred years when tribal members were on the landscape. They just worked with the system instead of against it.”

Trees burned in the Bootleg Fire stand in a barren landscape in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Beatty, Oregon on Sept. 13, 2021.

Trees burned in the Bootleg Fire stand in a barren landscape in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Beatty, Oregon on Sept. 13, 2021.

Rondeau said the partnership is a start, but it’s not without hiccups. The Forest Service has identified large project areas on which to implement a variety of restoration activities, from thinning and prescribed fire to riparian restoration, but they sometimes fail to follow through with those plans.

“Once you get to doing it, there’s no money to do follow-up stuff. You just come, you take the timber out and leave — that’s all the money there was,” he said. “That’s how we got into this situation in the first place.”

Rondeau said the federal government is trying to improve its relationship with the Tribes on the forestry front and is striving toward true co-management, but on many projects, they’ve ended up doing most of the implementation themselves without tribal boots on the ground. 

“We have a blueprint here of all the things we need to do to solve this problem, and the biggest thing we need to overcome is partnerships — our ability to work together,” he said.

Another option is returning the federally owned land, which used to be part of the Klamath Reservation, back to the Tribes. It may still be held in trust, transferring from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Interior under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but the move would likely provide more flexibility for the Tribes to apply their restoration philosophy throughout the forest.

The declining health of the Upper Klamath Basin has occurred in lockstep with the decline of the Klamath Tribes and the shaving down of their land base. They ceded over 20 million acres of southern Oregon and northern California in exchange for a 2 million acre reservation in 1864. Settlers then banned cultural fire practices and began suppressing fires started naturally by abundant lightning in the region.

The federal government passed the General Allotment Act in 1887, slicing the reservation into 160-acre parcels allotted to each tribal member and opening the rest for non-Native settlement. The leftover 880,000 acres of ponderosa pine made the Tribes the second-wealthiest in the nation before termination reduced that area to zero in 1954. 

“Where the Tribes have been for a very long time is in a position to watch their resources worsen over time. They’ve been in that position with whoever owns the land or is doing work on it,” Rondeau said. “It could potentially allow us to bring it in and decide what we want to see and do, and focus on what’s more important to the tribal culture, which would be the environment.”

The KBRA included the federal purchase and return of the Mazama Tract — roughly 90,000 acres of private timber holdings on the northwest corner of the former reservation — to the Klamath Tribes, becoming one of the main reasons the Tribes signed onto it. But the agreement stalled in Congress for so long that the private owners sold the tract to a Singapore firm before the transfer could be made. 

Oregon’s U.S. Senators were able to secure a near-100,000 acre parcel of the Fremont-Winema southeast of Klamath Marsh to replace the Mazama Tract, but in vain. The KBRA expired without any land returned to the Klamath Tribes.

Still, the Tribes support a return of federal land, whether as part of a settlement or separate from it. Beyond the boost to tribal morale and the cultural healing that would come with land return, tribal leaders said putting Indigenous people in charge of managing their own lands again would keep the watershed healthy for everyone else, too.

Perry Chocktoot, the Tribes’ culture and heritage director, is certain his people would do a better job than the Fremont-Winema National Forest. 

“They’ve failed in the management of our lands,” he said. “Let us do it. We’ll show you how to succeed.”

n the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 13, 2021.

Trees that were treated as part of the Black Hills Vegetation Management Project remain green despite being in the path of the Bootleg Fire this summer.

Steve  Rondeau, Natural resources director for the Klamath Tribes, points to maps showing areas of the Fremont-Winema National Forest that were treated with near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 13, 2021.

Steve Rondeau, Natural resources director for the Klamath Tribes, points to maps showing areas of the Fremont-Winema National Forest that were treated near Beatty, Oregon, on Sept. 13, 2021.

Downriver, the Yurok Tribe has been engaged in a years-long campaign to re-acquire 100% of its ancestral territory lost to allotment, even going so far as to purchase some former timber parcels outright with money earned from forest carbon credits. The Klamath Tribes did this last year with the purchase of the 1,700-acre Rocky Ford Ranch, the management plan for which is still being developed, on the Upper Williamson River. 

The forest and its traditional management looks different downriver, but the presence and deliberate use of fire is present throughout the Klamath Basin. In fact, the Yurok and the Karuk Tribes have emerged as leaders in the push for prescribed and cultural fire in the state of California.

Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, said it’s about more than the direct economic and cultural benefits to tribal members and tribal governments that would come with regaining homelands that were taken from them. It’s about fixing the environment and pushing restoration efforts forward by leaps and bounds. He compared it to irrigation efficiency — traditional management practices take pressure off the system by making more resources available to all users.

“When I talk about getting land back, it’s so we can apply the management tools that are best for this environment. I’m not talking about taking 12 acres in the middle of Klamath Falls back. I’m talking about the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land that needs to be managed in a traditional way as it always has,” Myers said. “These are areas I think we can come to an understanding on. If we had land management practices that allowed us to use our landscape better that didn’t have huge, negative impacts on agriculture, why wouldn’t we agree to that?”

Indeed, many non-Natives in the basin are on board with federal land return, especially after seeing the disastrous results of its mismanagement this summer.

“From a community standpoint, it would be great for our community if they had it,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance.

Becky Hyde also agrees that federal land that used to be the Klamath Reservation should be so again. On private ranchland, she thinks conservation easements like the one on her family’s Yainax Ranch, which give the Tribes agency in riparian restoration, are a good compromise that lets landowners stay on their property and work in partnership with the Tribes to heal the watershed. 

But she said the federal land return meets opposition from both the extreme right and the extreme left sides of the political table. It stems from concerns that recreational access to formerly public lands would be limited or closed off altogether, myths about termination and anti-Indian conspiracy thinking espoused by groups like the Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), which had ties to some KBRA opponents and the far-right activists at the tent during the summer of 2021.

Environmental advocacy group Oregon Wild, formerly the Oregon Natural Resources Council, also opposed the Fremont-Winema transfer provision in the KBRA, arguing that the Tribes should have sought other opportunities for private land. However, the only remaining land not owned by timber companies or the federal government were individual ranches that the Tribes would have to claim eminent domain on — an obviously divisive issue in the Upper Basin that tribal leadership at the time did not support.

“When we’ve tried to do this before, we’ve also seen the loud side of the environmental movement come out in opposition to return of the lands to tribes,” Hyde said. “They want federal land to stay in federal hands, and I think that just downplays the absolute complexity.”

Even the federal government itself is reconsidering its role as a land manager of Indigenous homelands. On November 15, the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture issued a joint order directing their departments to strengthen relationships with tribes whose interests may be affected by federal projects and actions — not only through more involved consultation, but through co-management and even federal land return. The statement also recognized the value of more deeply involving the original stewards of federal lands in managing them.

“Further, in honoring these obligations, the Departments will benefit by incorporating Tribal expertise and Indigenous knowledge into Federal land and resources management,” the order read.

For Rondeau, the bottom line is that returning the forest to its natural state can save it — even in the face of climate-driven extreme fire weather — and that these kinds of treatments should be scaled up and applied throughout the not-yet-burned forests of the Upper Basin. Whether that happens through a strengthened partnership with the Fremont-Winema or a return of the Klamath Tribes’ ancestral homelands outright, Rondeau thinks the small patches of green that survived the Bootleg Fire speak for themselves.

“Come tell me I’m wrong. Anyone who wants to come have this discussion, please come have this discussion,” he said. “Because we’ve got something to show you guys.”

Fish on!

The F/V Elmarue glided through early morning fog on its way out of Eureka Harbor. Dave Bitts, its captain and a former president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, had heard that salmon were biting about 20 miles north, off Trinidad Head. The old trawler began to pitch as it exited the calm channel into the heaving ocean. Despite four-foot swells, Bitts said conditions were comparatively good.

Dave Bittz fishes for salmon in the Pacific Ocean on July 20, 2021 near Arcata, Calif.

The F/V Elmarue leaves Eureka Harbor, heading for the Pacific Ocean on July 20, 2021.

Bitts used to spend entire summers fishing for salmon commercially, but the decline in Klamath runs has regularly shut down the fishery along roughly 200 miles of coastline from the Oregon border to Shelter Cove for most of the season. Over the past three to four decades, consistently low returns have shrunk the commercial ocean fishery by 96% in Eureka and by 98% in Crescent City. 

This year, Bitts had to spend days sailing further south to the Mendocino Coast to be able to catch anything for market. 

“If we had a really strong Klamath run we could stay home,” he said.

On this morning in late July, Bitts was just fishing for sport. The recreational fishery, which used to run between Memorial Day and Labor Day, was open for little over a month this summer.

Dave Bittz fishes for salmon in the Pacific Ocean on July 20, 2021 near Arcata, Calif.

Dave Bitts steers the F/V Elmarue towards Trinidad, Calif., while keeping an eye on his green fish finder monitor on July 20, 2021. 

The three-hour run to Trinidad, with Bitts constantly checking his fish finder for schools of anchovies and krill (prime salmon food), turned out to be unsuccessful. He steered back south, and the lines trailing behind the boat picked up just a couple bites. After catching and releasing a threatened coho, the crew ended up reeling in two kings, cleaning them and putting them on ice. Had this been a commercial fishing trip, two salmon in nine hours wouldn’t have paid the bills.

Bitts said he’s lucky enough to be a semi-retired fisherman. Younger folks in the area have had to diversify their operations to catch seafood other than salmon, and it’s not feasible to be out at sea for days at a time when you have young kids.

“I’m in a fortunate position,” Bitts said. “Social Security helps.”

Dave Bittz fishes for salmon in the Pacific Ocean on July 20, 2021 near Arcata, Calif.

Bitts holds a net with a freshly-caught Coho salmon. The endangered fish was immediately released back into the Pacific. 

A few days later and 50 miles north, as the tide rolled in on a midsummer evening, the swelling mouth of the Klamath attracted fish and fishers. Yurok fishers congregated by the boat ramp at the foot of Requa Hill, next to the tribe’s commercial fishery facility that has sat dormant for two years, preparing their nets for the night.

In a year when drought seemed to have pushed the natural schedule ahead by a month, folks who have lived here for decades remarked that the river looked more like it should in late August than late July. The salmon, thought to be a hybrid of the spring and fall run produced by Trinity Hatchery, came in from the ocean to snack on baitfish washed into the tidal basin.

Amy Cordalis, counsel for the Yurok Tribe and a tribal member, helped her father, Bill Bowers, a former Yurok judge, back their hardy aluminum sled boat into the estuary. They sped about half a mile upstream to one of their family fishing holes and began unfurling a hundred-foot-long gill net perpendicular to the bank. Behind them, forested hills took on a gold tinge from the setting sun.

Amy Cordallis and her father, Bill Bowers, fish for salmon using the traditional Yurok tribe technique--gill nets, near the mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

Amy Cordalis cleans a salmon caught by her and her father, Bill Bowers, via gill net on July 21, 2021.

Bowers steered the boat back to shore to wait for the net’s cork line to wiggle, signaling a successful catch. While keeping watch, he lamented that, after decades of successfully asserting the tribal right to fish and through no fault of their own, Yuroks are now losing the fish themselves. The tribe hasn’t had a regularly viable commercial fishery in years. 

“If I could’ve made a living fishing all these years, I’d have been sitting in a castle on a hill somewhere,” Bowers said. “Because we could catch some fish and we were really good at it. It’s in our genetics.”

As the sky turned pink, the father-daughter duo got slightly more lucky than Bitts: They caught four Chinook. It was still a far cry from the days Bowers remembers, when he could catch hundreds of fish in a single night.

“You would not believe the difference in attitude, the difference in the feeling of this community, when there’s commercial fishing,” he said. “It’s called hope.”

Bowers and Bitts may seem at odds: tribal and nontribal, gill net and trawler, both trying to snag the same fish. In fact, their communities had been in fierce opposition for decades. But since the 1980s, leaders of non-Native commercial fishing groups and Indigenous communities along the Klamath River have been engaged in an unlikely alliance to advocate for the health of the watershed.

Unlike other federally recognized tribes throughout the U.S., Congress never ratified the Yuroks’ 1851 treaty. However, four years later, an executive order established the 56,000-acre Yurok Reservation and the federal government’s tribal trust responsibilities to its residents — including the Yuroks’ right to fish on the Klamath River that ran through it.

During the allotment era of the late 19th century, the federal government divided up the Yurok Reservation, giving small parcels to each Yurok citizen and selling the remaining 30% of the land to settlers and timber companies. 

Arguing that the reservation was no longer Indian Country after it was allotted to individuals, the state of California claimed jurisdiction over the Klamath River. They required anyone, Native or non-Native, hoping to fish on the Klamath to have a state license. Once spring Chinook salmon declined in the 1930s, the state issued a ban on Klamath fishing.

But throughout all of this, Cordalis said, many Yuroks had continued fishing at their accustomed places, relatively sheltered from state enforcement due to the remoteness of the Lower Klamath River. That included her great uncle Raymond Mattz and his parents Geneva and Emery. They continued fishing, without licenses and in defiance of the ban.

“My family was basically salmon bootleggers,” Cordalis said.

As a young man, Mattz was arrested and released multiple times, but he kept on fishing. In 1969, while he watched over his net at Brooks Riffle, the family fishing hole, a California Fish and Game warden issued him a citation and confiscated his nets.

Mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

A squadron of pelicans flies over the mouth of the Klamath River on July 21, 2021. 

Mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

Tourists look out over the mouth of the Klamath River from the Klamath River Overlook on July 21, 2021.

In court, Mattz demanded his fishing gear back. The judge said he could have it, as long as he paid a $1 fine. But at the height of the Civil Rights Era, when Indigenous communities were beginning to organize into the American Indian Movement, Mattz knew he’d be able to acquire a lawyer specializing in Indian Law. He decided to fight the ruling.

“My uncle said, ‘To hell with you. I have Indian fishing rights,’” Cordalis said.

The case became an investigation into whether or not the stretches of the Klamath River frequented by the Yurok were still Indian Country, and by consequence whether California could regulate the tribal fishery there. The legal fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that because Yurok people had remained there and continued their lifeways even after allotment, the reservation still maintained its “Indian character.” Therefore, they still had a right to the Klamath’s fish that could not be infringed upon by the state.

The 1973 case affirmed Yurok tribal sovereignty, Cordalis said.

But federal officials insisted that the fishery still needed to be regulated. Non-tribal fishermen blamed Yuroks for the decline in salmon, despite evidence that tribal members caught a fraction of all salmon pulled out of the river and that upriver dams and land use changes, along with overfishing in the ocean, shouldered more of the blame. Five years after Mattz’s case, the federal government issued another moratorium on all Klamath salmon fishing near Requa.

This time, Mattz had more allies, and the Klamath Salmon Wars began. Yuroks took to the Klamath Estuary and kept fishing, turning it into a sort of protest. They met violent opposition from federal law enforcement: Boats were rammed, tribal members were hit with clubs, and agents even raided Mattz’s house multiple times looking for fish.

“How it ended up ending was … we just kept fishing,” Cordalis said. “It became clear to the feds that we weren’t going to stop.”

Once the salmon run trailed off in the fall, law enforcement left the mouth of the Klamath. The Salmon Wars ended without a truce.

Non-Natives eventually understood that the Yuroks would not be regulated off their ancestral fishery, but locals still had to determine how much of each year’s returning salmon each fishery was entitled to. Following the passage of the Klamath Restoration Act, the Klamath Fishery Management Council began in the late 1980s to serve as a federal advisory council representing tribes, ocean fishery groups, sportfishing groups and regulatory agencies. The legislation also set aside about a million dollars a year over two decades for restoration activities in the Lower Basin.

Amy Cordallis and her father, Bill Bowers, fish for salmon using the traditional Yurok tribe technique--gill nets, near the mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

Amy Cordalis and her father, Bill Bowers, wait onshore for salmon to get tangled in the gill net, near the mouth of the Klamath River on July 21, 2021.

Using salmon return predictions, the KFMC met each spring to decide how many fish each fishery — tribal, non-tribal commercial and non-tribal sport — was entitled to that season. The council devised a five-year sharing agreement of the allowable catch, giving the tribes a third of the run and non-tribal fisheries two thirds of it. They recommended each year’s allowable harvest to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which then communicated those rules to various federal, state and tribal regulatory bodies.

Bitts joined the council in 1992, as a series of severe droughts began to reduce the number of returning spawners. Allocations got tight.

“The tribes figured out that they could get a better deal elsewhere and they did,” he said.

In 1993, the Secretaries of Interior and Commerce overrode the PFMC’s division of harvestable salmon, reducing the ocean fishery to allow tribes on the Lower Klamath to take 50% of the stocks in accordance with the language in the executive orders that created their reservations.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which Bitts was also involved with at the time, sued the secretaries. They argued that, by throwing out the KFMC allocations, the Secretary of Commerce violated the Magnuson Act, which established the management councils that regulate U.S. fisheries. 

But tribal rights prevailed. Since then, the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes have been able to take a total of half the harvestable salmon that run up the Klamath. No one has challenged it since.

“We were pissed,” Bitts said. “It meant a major, major constraint on the time and area available for salmon fishing in the ocean. Thirty years later, a lot of my buddies are still pissed.”

But Bitts remembers himself being more pragmatic. PCFFA looked for subsequent opportunities to win back the non-tribal allocation in court, but none appeared. Since they had already been coordinating with the tribes on restoration efforts in the watershed through the Klamath Restoration Act, they figured the best way to improve their industry would be to bring salmon stocks back up instead of fighting over their declining supply.

“Clearly, we’re all better off the bigger the pie is,” Bitts said. “That’s where our common ground comes in.”

Dave Bittz fishes for salmon in the Pacific Ocean on July 20, 2021 near Arcata, Calif.

Dave Bitts prepares to clean one of the two King salmon he caught on July 20, 2021.

Dave Bittz fishes for salmon in the Pacific Ocean on July 20, 2021 near Arcata, Calif.

Bitts checks on his lines from the doorway of the cabin on July 20, 2021.

Glen Spain, northwest regional director for PCFFA, has been working on Klamath issues since 1985. After the 1993 decision, he shifted his focus to big-picture projects that could improve life for salmon in the basin. Most obvious was the removal of the four hydroelectric dams below Keno, whose licenses were expiring in the early 2000s. PCFFA joined a coalition of tribes and environmental groups who lobbied the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, to remove them instead of renewing their licenses. 

Bitts even tagged along with dam removal activists to demonstrate at PacifiCorp parent company Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meetings during those negotiations.

“That was a remarkable experience and a hell of a good time,” he said.

More than 20 years later, the effort is close to paying off. The dams are slated to be removed in 2023, pending approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“We’ve maintained good relations with the tribes despite the fact that we were squaring off with each other in litigation,” Spain said. “Maybe we can fight over the fish later, but we’ll have more fish.”

Spain thinks the broader fight over water in the upper basin may not be so different from the downriver fight over salmon. Both involve Native and non-Native people tussling over a dwindling resource, where the ultimate solution is to rehabilitate that resource for all groups — whether it’s removing dams to save salmon or restoring forests and modernizing irrigation to save water.

“Work on your common interests. If you have disputes, draw a circle around them,” Spain said. “You’re always stronger together as a coalition than you are fighting each other.”

Amy Cordallis and her father, Bill Bowers, fish for salmon using the traditional Yurok tribe technique--gill nets, near the mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

Amy Cordalis prepares to clean a salmon on the hull of her boat on July 21, 2021. 

Bitts said tribal members and rank-and-file fishermen on the coast are far from singing kumbaya, and there’s still the occasional groan when each year’s fishing allocations are announced. But leaders of both groups recognize that the best way forward is through partnership, not animosity. He thinks the relationship between tribal and non-tribal fishing advocates is something the entire basin can learn from.

“These groups that saw themselves as bitter adversaries were able to come together to forge an agreement on how to move forward,” Bitts said.

That’s the kind of thinking that drove the KBRA — but while whispers of negotiation and partnership have started to pop up in recent years, communities have been too deep in crisis to devise and implement coordinated, large-scale initiatives. Tribes, irrigators and fishermen couldn’t even collectively ask their political leaders for a basin-wide drought relief package this summer.

“We’re seeing a reflection of our communities in our leaders. They’re saying, ‘Take care of me. Take care of my family’ instead of ‘Take care of us. Take care of our families,’” said Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers. “You can uplift your own community without destroying someone else’s. I don’t know if that’s a concept that we’re all agreed to in the basin.”

As Amy Cordalis sat in her family’s boat, the same one she rode as a young girl to learn the art of Yurok salmon fishing from her father, she wondered whether the summer of 2021 would finally make people throw their hands up and decide to work together again. Abject disaster tends to catalyze change in the basin, she said, as it did after the irrigation shut-off in 2001 and the salmon kill in 2002. 

“We have to come up with new, better ideas that make us one community, and climate change can be the catalyst to create that new way of thinking,” Cordalis said. “I don’t know if people are ever going to get over their biases, but I do think that if we continue living the way that things are going now, none of us are going to survive.”

Amy Cordallis and her father, Bill Bowers, fish for salmon using the traditional Yurok tribe technique--gill nets, near the mouth of the Klamath on July 21, 2021.

Amy Cordalis and her father, Bill Bowers, look for salmon in the gill nets near the mouth of the Klamath River on July 21, 2021.


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