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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of radio stations.

The Cost Of A Free Lunch


Who wouldn’t love a free lunch? You seat yourself, let’s say, on a sun-dappled outdoor patio, choose among the many mouth-watering dishes, enjoy a glass or two of wine, and finally, full at last, get up and simply stroll away. No waiter pursues you, waving a bill. No guilty conscience disturbs your well-being. This establishment never charges. It’s a free lunch, every day.A lovely image, but obviously just a daydream. There’s always a cost, and someone has to pay. That’s only common sense. If we know anything, we know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Except, apparently, when it comes to “natural resources.” We seem to somehow still believe that these are, or should be, as forever free-flowing as the wine in that imaginary restaurant. Any talk of limitation — of cost — is met with indignation. What’s this? A bill! That’s outrageous — we’ve never been asked to pay before! We’re certainly not going to start now.

Do I exaggerate? Well, perhaps a little. But let’s look at a couple of current examples right here in the mythical state of Jefferson: the water in the Klamath Basin, and the timber on BLM’s O&C lands.

So rich were the lakes and marshes of the Klamath Basin, and so spectacular were the flocks of waterfowl they supported, that word of their abundance reached distant Washington, DC and in 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt declared them to be the first waterfowl preserve in the new National Wildlife Refuge system. Beginning at about the same time, the area’s promise for agriculture also attracted the attention of politicians and homesteaders, and the Bureau of Reclamation re-made the Basin to serve the interests of farmers. In 1962, Irongate Dam was completed, ending the movement of salmon into the upper reaches of the Klamath River. In the 1980’s, the Klamath Tribes began working to preserve two species of suckers in Klamath Lake, traditional food fish whose populations had declined to critically levels. In the 1990’s, concern for the health of salmon stocks took center stage, increasing demands for water in the Klamath River below the dams.

In 2001, a drought brought crisis to the Basin as government regulators, irrigators and environmentalists struggled over allocation of meager water supplies to competing interests, all of whom were “entitled” to more water than was available. In 2002, the Bush Administration intervened to assure that Klamath irrigators received their full allocation of water, leading to low flows in the lower Klamath River. That fall, approximately 34,000 returning adult salmon died in the river, one of the largest fish kills in American history. Just this spring, the decades-long adjudication of water rights in the Basin was concluded, with senior rights being awarded to the Klamath Tribes. This resulted in higher water levels for Klamath Lake and its endangered suckers, but severely restricted water availability for upper Basin irrigators and essentially no water deliveries to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. This fall, a botulism outbreak, linked to low water levels on the refuge, killed over 10,000 waterfowl.

At every twist and turn of this saga, irrigators have expressed shock and outrage when their water allocations are threatened. That’s understandable: they were promised that water, and their crops depend on it. But clearly the present water distribution system in the Klamath Basin reflects the application of “free-lunch” thinking to a resource that is, in fact, extremely limited. There is simply not enough water to meet all the promises that have been made, and that has been obvious for many years now. In this case, the “bill” that is due is the need to accommodate to the reality of the water supply. That will require all parties — not just the refuges and their wildlife — to pick up their share of the tab; that is, reduce their water use.

BLM’s O&C lands in western Oregon provide an even more striking example of our treatment of natural resources as a free lunch. These “Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands” were taken back from the railroads (for non-compliance with the terms of the original grant) and transferred to federal ownership in 1916. Ultimately, an arrangement was made that the eighteen western Oregon counties where O&C lands were located would keep 50% of the revenues from timber sales on the parcels. For decades, heavy logging of old-growth forests on the federal O&C lands provided an abundant flow of funds into the coffers of the counties, whose citizens enjoyed generous services while paying very little in property taxes (an average of 90 cents less per $1000 of assessed valuation than the statewide average of $2.81, according to the Oregon governor’s office). It was a pretty great free lunch, all right.

Now, wait a minute, many will say. There’s no free lunch here — we’re entitled to these payments to make up for lost property tax revenue on those lands. There are two problems with that argument. First, the federal O&C lands cost the counties very little. Mentally subtract those lands from the size of the county: the population remains the same, the needed services don’t appreciably change; it’s simply a smaller area. If these federal lands don’t significantly increase costs, why should they be expected to provide significant revenue?

But, comes the reply, if these were private timberlands, they would be paying taxes, so there’s a loss that must be made up. Well, all right — what would that loss amount to? The answer, according to calculations by the Oregon governor’s office, is about $10 million per year for all 18 O&C counties combined. This is based on an analysis of the property taxes paid by private timber companies in Oregon, the O&C acreage in each county, and a generous estimate of the timber quality (“site class”) on the O&C lands.

Timber harvest on O&C lands has declined drastically in recent years, resulting in budget crises in many counties. And yet, voters in both Curry and Josephine Counties recently refused to raise their property taxes, despite mass releases of prisoners from county jails and other drastic cutbacks. Instead, the O&C counties want the federal government to pay. They’re asking not for $10 million (the best estimate of potential lost tax revenue), but over $100 million — and it looks like they will get it. Not to be outdone, Oregon Congressmen DeFazio, Walden, and Schrader have proposed carving out about half the O&C lands to be managed like private industrial timberlands. They seem prepared to sacrifice all the environmental benefits that well-managed federal forests provide in order to maintain, for a bit longer, the free-lunch fantasy of the O&C counties.

Sorry, but I see Mother Nature approaching... and she’s got a bill in her hand.

Pepper Trail is an Ashland naturalist and writer. To read more of his work, visit his websites www.peppertrail.net and www.earthprecepts.net.

Pepper Trail is a naturalist, photographer, writer, and world traveler who has lived in Ashland since 1994. He works as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and in his spare time leads natural history trips to every corner of the world. Pepper is a regular essayist for the Jefferson Journal.