klamath basin Feb 2012
The Klamath Basin, situated at the border between Oregon and Northern California and home to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, is a watery oasis for millions of birds each year. Though the huge density of raptors and bald eagles that spend the winter here was the incentive for me to check it out (the largest density of bald eagles in the lower 48), I was also overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of waterfowl that inhabit this place as well as the topography of the land. There are certain places – the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Niagara Falls – that simply instill an awe beyond which words are capable of expressing. Though not as drastic as some of these other sights, standing in the flat plains which are a mix of wetland, agriculture, swamp, and lakes, I felt transported to another time. I would not have been surprised to see a Mastodon stride out from the tule reeds after wallowing in the shallows for a bath. In addition to coming upon fields where sometimes we would see over 40 bald eagles sitting on the ground with at least four other species of raptors nearby, there were moments when literally THOUSANDS of geese would lift off into the sky at one time, from a distance appearing as dense as a swarm of mosquitoes. This spectacle with a backdrop of a sharply rising hills and mountains all around, and snow covered volcanoes including Mt Shasta in the distance, made the scene unforgettable.
This place has a lot of history, both pre and post human occupation, and I could spend a lifetime here exploring all the place has to offer. So many ecosystems, diverse and abundant wildlife, amazing geology and varied terrain, rich human history – and a lot of potential for this to be a great example of sustainable coexistence between nature, agriculture, hunting, eco-tourism, birding, and more. Located along the Cascade Range of volcanoes, the area has a fiery geological past (evidence of which is seen prolifically in the nearby Lava Beds National Monument) followed by an era at the end of the last ice age when much of this area was under water, forming a lake called Lake Modoc. The volcanoes in the Cascade Range are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, hosting the Earth’s most active seismic and volcanic regions. Here in the United States this includes Mount St Helens and Mount Lassen, both of which have erupted in the last 100 years.
In more recent times (the last 10,000 years), Lake Modoc receded to become Upper Klamath Lake, Lower Klamath Lake, and Tule Lake. This wet ecosystem, sometimes called “Everglades West,” is part of the Pacific Coast Flyway, the migration route that millions of birds use annually (estimates are that 80% of birds on the Pacific Coast Flyway use this area as a stop-off during their journeys). And where there is prey, there are always sure to be large number of predators not far behind …
The first people on this land were the predecessors of the present day tribes that call this area home, the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooshkin people. Their ancestors are the ones who most likely paddled out to carve petroglyphs into the rocks at Petroglyph Point (part of Lava Beds National Monument) – at one time an island in the now much-recessed Tule Lake – and painted the caves and lava tubes around the area. Since the occupation by non-Natives in the 1800’s, this area was know for logging, but recently it has become more of a farming, ranching, hunting, birding and tourist economy.
The area’s recent human history and current issues are almost as volatile as its volcanic origins. The story of how Natives were displaced here follows the same sad and confusing story line as that from most of the United States – except with an interesting twist. When the Modoc were pushed onto reservation land, a rebellion by some of them ensued and it started the Modoc War of 1872-73. The Natives, lead by Captain Jack (Kintpuash), managed to sustain a guerrilla war on the U.S. military for over a year using the lava beds and lava tubes as a defense and a way to launch sneak attacks. Although they ultimately succumbed to a military that was bigger and better armed, there were casualties on both sides, including the death of a U.S. General (GEN Edward Canby) at the hands of Captain Jack.
Recently there has been a lot of conflict between people trying to find a balance between ecological conservation, water rights, agriculture, hunting, wildlife preservation, logging, Native Peoples’ rights, and the salmon restoration. To look at this in a positive way, it’s the breadth of varied interests that are trying to coexist here that creates the beautiful potential for a reproducible example of how everyone can be creative and find a way to all live together in a manner that is sustainable for everyone and the Earth. Perhaps the pathway to those answers that they find here can be an example for other places in the United States and around the world.
I’m thankful for having gotten to spend time here and am excited to return soon – many thanks to the people of Klamath Falls and the greater area for their hospitality and kindness. I look forward to returning and seeing the Klamath Basin fields, skies and waters filled with the sound and activity of abundant wildlife, and the city of Klamath Falls prospering, empty storefronts filled and people walking on the streets with smiles on their faces.
Again, special thanks to Larry Broderick of West County Hawk Watch for sharing his vast knowledge, keen eye, and expert raptor identification skills with us on this adventure, as well as for making this trip possible.