Refuge ventures: A mixed bag
A fall trip to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges brings beauty and concern.
Two weeks ago Oregon Wild hosted a group of interested birders, conservationists, and friends to the Klamath Basin for a tour of the National Wildlife Refuges. We hit upon practically the last beautiful weekend of fall and found ourselves rolling up pant legs as we canoed up the Williamson River. With controversy and diverse opinions about “what’s best” for the Klamath abound, it’s easy to forget that this is a beautiful place, some might even say serene.
Before hitting the middle-basin refuges, we spent an afternoon exploring land sales and private restoration projects on the Sprague River, and an afternoon on the Williamson River and Upper Klamath Marsh. The raptors and coyotes were in full search, making their predation of rodents well known throughout the upper basin; the aspen had just turned and made for endless "oohs and ahhs" from every car; and the guests were sufficiently enthralled by the domesticated buffalo “roaming” on the private lands next to the Marsh.
And then reality set-in.
Reality in the massive, complex, and diverse Klamath Basin is not always discouraging. In fact, one of the reasons I first engaged in the Klamath was because of its complexity, its turmoil, and its opportunity.
Friday night I encouraged folks to take a walk with me along the Marsh to star gaze. (There are stars in the basin that I feel fairly confident do not exist in other places in Oregon. There isn’t light pollution from the city, or noise of traffic, or even interference of household lamps to cloud the view. It is nothing short of spectacular.) As we walked, I noticed light in the distance—spotlighters. It’s hunting season, but not at 9pm. At 9pm it’s spotlighters, stunning deer on the Marsh. And at 9pm they found us, a clueless group of walkers using our headlamps to deter the possible shotgun coming our way. Spotlighting is frequent but illegal, of course, and for some, an uncomfortable introduction to the conflicting user groups on public lands in the Klamath.
At the peak of our tour we made our way to Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. We arrived near the close of hunting hours and made our way through the drier-than-usual Lower Klamath refuge. We lunched next too nearly 100 Sandhill Cranes before arriving at the refuge headquarters on Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
And then the smell of reality hit us.
Onions. Trucks and trucks of onions coming and going from the National Wildlife Refuge leaseland farms. The joy of bouncing Sandhills left me and I remembered the other refuge: 32,000 acres of commercial agriculture on public refuge lands. Our guests hiked up Sheepy Ridge and saw it for themselves: dry fields where wetlands once thrived. It was almost painful, seeing these lands once again from above.
Painful to see how fewer than 20 families have successfully transformed wetlands to rows of onions, potatoes, or just dry fields. Luckily after we rolled through the remaining refuges and cooed at ruddy ducks and dear roaming near the Lava Beds, I felt a bit better.
It’s always a mixed bag when I visit the refuges. Hard when coyotes are hiding behind long-haul trailers instead of willows. But the optimism of conservation friends, the calm of the season’s first Tundra Swans, and the resounding hope that someday this basin will be restored make the challenges a bit more palatable.