West makes a battle cry of Klamath Basin

Back on the ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush feels right at home in cowboy boots and Levis. "The strength of this country is in our heartland," he likes to say, and that sentiment goes for many in his administration. Vice President Cheney is from Wyoming. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman grew up on a peach farm in Modesto, Calif. Interior Secretary Gale Norton recently pronounced herself "just delighted to escape Washington and get back home to Colorado."

But all is not well in portions of the heartland - at least not in the rural West, where the conflict between traditional ways of living (and of earning a living) continue to bump up against environmental values.

Take Klamath Falls, Ore. Here, Mr. Bush risks incurring the wrath of one of his staunchest constituencies - farmers and ranchers - unless he can solve a looming water crisis. In the process, he's being pushed to purge federal resource agencies of all those card-carrying biologists who - according to the stereotype many here hold - favor bugs and "varmints" over people.

To protect three species of fish threatened with extinction, the US Bureau of Reclamation earlier this year shut off water to most of the 220,000 acres irrigated by the federal Klamath Project. National wildlife refuges and Indian tribes also have legitimate claims to the water here, leading many experts to say the federal government has promised more than it can deliver over the years.

Three times since the shutdown, farmers and their supporters have broken open the head gates that control the water flow.

Spotted owls vs. way of life

How Bush handles the tense situation is being closely watched by loggers in Montana, miners in Nevada, and those who work the land all over the West - many of whom have seen their way of life dwindle in recent years as endangered species like spotted owls and salmon become the focus of growing public environmentalism.

"He should be doing what's right on this," says Barry Martin, a rancher from Marion, Mont. Mr. Martin and his family drove 850 miles with a symbolic gallon of water from their well in support of drought-thirsty farmers here. They stood outside a locked gate, behind which officers from the federal Bureau of Land Management guarded the valves that controlled the water flow to the massive Klamath Irrigation Project.

Other protesters here last week were less polite. "If Bush had guts, we'd have water," read one hand-painted sign.

"We're in a war, aren't we, folks?" said Helen Chenowith-Hage, a former Republican member of Congress from Idaho. In her view, the federal resource agencies now headed by Bush appointees have long been the political enemy.

"This is a rural cleansing," said Mrs. Chenowith-Hage, whose husband's cattle were rounded up and auctioned off to cover the federal range fees he refused to pay. "And I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that it is not just happening here in the Klamath Basin. It's happening all over the West."

The political landscape

A look at the county-by-county results of last November's election shows the interior West - from the Cascade-Sierra Nevada crest all the way back to the flat Midwest - to be Bush territory. But these wide-open spaces also lack sufficient congressional clout to change environmental policy on their own. Key Eastern Republicans in the House are strongly pro-environment. And the recent Senate takeover by Democrats makes things worse, according to many rural Westerners.

"That pretty much dashed the hopes of getting some change fairly quickly," says Marty Michelsen, a retiree from Whitefish, Mont., who joined his state's "convoy" of about 50 vehicles (including a loaded log truck with a sign listing the dozens of sawmills that have closed there over the past decade).

"The whole deal is, we've got to get more support from people in the East," says John Carpenter, a Nevada state assemblyman and rancher from Elko.

Many people here feel that Bush must move swiftly to promote changes in the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws governing traditional rural activities - particularly the ranching, logging, and mining that mostly take place on federal land.

The Bush administration is finding Western resource issues, like most things, more complicated now than when it was campaigning from outside the White House. The same was true for the Clinton administration when, during its first month, it tried to tackle the spotted-owl controversy.

For now, Interior Secretary Norton has asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the biological opinions that were the basis for cutting off irrigation in the Klamath Basin. For farmers and their supporters here, it's a start in the right direction.

But trying to amend the Endangered Species Act, something its opponents have tried to do for years without success, will be a lot harder.

Still, says Mr. Michelsen, "We're hopeful."

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