Residents of south central Oregon are apparently feeling a bit of déjà vu all over again as the specter of another Ammon Bundy-led armed takeover of a federal facility looms over the town of Klamath Falls—some 261 miles away via U.S. 395 from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where Bundy orchestrated a monthlong standoff in January 2016, but facing all-too-familiar circumstances.
Over the past few weeks, a cluster of Patriot-movement “constitutionalists” angered by federal water use decisions that will deprive farmers in the basin of their annual allotments from Upper Klamath Lake—all the result of severe drought conditions that have threatened to destroy both fish populations in the lakes and rivers and the abundant wildlife that depend on their presence for food—have been gathering their forces at the mouth of the lake, near the floodgates that manage water flow into the Klamath River from which they irrigate, and threatening to open them. Once again, the local residents actually affected are not just unimpressed with the Patriots’ posturing, but fearful of the ugly consequences that always follow their extremist endeavors.
At an encampment near the floodgates, Bundy’s “People’s Rights Network” has been slowly gathering forces, recruiting supporters from a tent dubbed the “Water Crisis Info Center,” selling Patriot merchandise and propaganda supporting their cause, and holding meetings at which speakers decry the federal government. Organizers have been explicit in announcing their intentions—namely, to break the lock on the gates to the facility and use a crane to remove the large metal bulkheads that keep the water from flowing into the “A” canal that manages the lake’s levels.
They’re just not saying when it will happen. “You never tell the enemy when you’re going to attack,” spokesman Dan Nielsen told the Redding Record-Searchlight.
The dispute underlying the mounting tension has many of the earmarks of climate change-driven disputes over increasingly scarce resources: The Klamath Basin, home to some 1,200 farms dependent on the federally operated system of dams, reservoirs, and canals known as the Klamath Project, has been hit by extreme drought conditions—which in fact have hit throughout much of the interior West, particularly in California—due largely to an unusually warm, dry winter and persistent dry conditions over the past decade and longer.
In order to preserve endangered fish populations in Upper Klamath Lake, federal water managers shut off water to the “A” canal in May, saying the decision was forced by the need to balance the water demands of farmers with threatened and endangered fish species amid the drought. The Bureau of Reclamation announced that it would only allocate 33,000 acre-feet of water this summer, a dramatic reduction from the typical full allocation of 350,000 acre-feet.
“That’s why we’re pissed, because we own the water and it’s deeded to our land, and the federal government is stealing it. People don’t get that part of it,” Nielsen said.
The Klamath Project was the scene of a similar standoff of sorts in 2001, when Nielsen and others—including Grant Knoll, who with Nielsen co-owns the property on which the current encampment stands—entered the facility and opened the floodgates briefly on three separate occasions, until federal marshals arrived to keep them out for good.
The key presence of Bundy’s “People’s Rights Network” organizing the scene has created an even more bellicose tenor this time around—one distinctly flavored by far-right “constitutionalist” paranoia and conspiracism. Kristen Clark, a local network spokesperson, told the Record-Searchlight that the “Water Crisis Info Center” has drawn wide attention mainly as part of “the nationwide battle against what they say has become government tyranny.”
“When you fear the government, it’s tyranny,” Nielsen said. “It says in the Constitution a well-run government fears the people. That’s how it should be. It’s the other way around now.”
Bundy himself—who formed the People’s Network during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of his larger protest against what he called the “tyranny” of health-related shutdowns of businesses and public facilities—has not yet appeared on the scene. Mostly he been largely preoccupied with his trial on trespassing charges for entering the Idaho state Capitol after being banned from it, not to mention his nascent plans to run for Idaho governor as a Republican.
Yet he did tell a New York Times reporter that he was preparing to bring his allies—including the 5,377 members of People’s Network in Oregon—to open the gates. He added that the use of force, even against law enforcement, is sometimes necessary to protect people’s rights.
“Who cares if there is violence? At least something will be worked out,” Bundy said, mocking anyone who failed to fight for the nation’s food supply: “‘Oh, we don’t want violence, we’ll just starve to death.’ Heaven forbid we talk about violence.”
At the recent Memorial Day parade in Klamath Falls, the protest’s organizers entered a float featuring a large bucket hoisted up on a trailer bed that had been used in the 2001 protests. Volunteers walked behind the float, handing out fliers and recruiting more supporters. Afterwards, the organizers hosted a barbecue at the red-and-white tent; when most of those gathered had left, the subject of their plans for a standoff came up.
Nielsen and Knoll frankly said they both intended to do “whatever it takes” to get access to water they believe belongs to them—referencing Bundy’s 2016 Malheur standoff as an example.
“If you stand up for your private property, it appears that you’re putting your life on the line, ‘cause they will shoot you down and gun you down like they did LaVoy Finicum,” Nielsen said. (Finicum was shot to death by an Oregon State Trooper during the roadside arrests of the standoff’s leaders.)
He also told Jefferson Public Radio: “We’re going to turn on the water and have a standoff.”
Yet Nielsen and his cohorts were disappointed at the composition of the turnout for a protest they organized last Thursday, which drew about 100 people. It featured People’s Rights Network’s Oregon leader, B.J. Soper, a longtime Northwest Patriot movement figure who had organized the protest in Burns, Oregon, in early January 2016 from which Bundy had launched his Malheur standoff.
Nielsen noted bitterly that few of his fellow farmers from the Klamath Project were in the crowd. “You see how many farmers are here? I could count them all on one hand,” Nielsen said.
Indeed, a number of those farmers told the Klamath Falls Herald and News that they really wanted nothing to do with this kind of far-right extremism, particularly since it offered no realistic solutions to what they can see are very real long-term issues. Many of the irrigators said the protesters aren’t representative of most people who actually use the water in question.
Soper tried to explain away the poor turnout among the farming community by claiming that people have been “conditioned” not to object to federal dictates: “I think they feel helpless. I think they feel that they don’t have any say over their water,” he said.
A Klamath Project farmer from nearby Tulelake, Scott Seus, had a different take: “I think it says a lot that nobody showed up,” he said. “I think that people are cautious to grab hold of that.”
Ben Duval, another Tulelake farmer who is president of the Klamath Water Users Association, told the Herald Record that while he supports peaceful protests, most Klamath Project irrigators don’t support the announced agenda of the Patriot protesters.
“I implore my fellow citizens to remain peaceful. There’s nothing to gain through violence or property destruction, and it would reflect poorly on our community,” DuVal said.
DuVal added that legal issues involving competing rights to Upper Klamath Lake water between federal, tribal, and state authorities have not been resolved by the courts. “We have a right to that water, but there’s also other needs for that water that have federal laws (behind them),” DuVal said. “Right now (others are) kind of holding all the cards.”
He was scathing in his assessment of the Patriot agitators’ bull-in-a-china-shop politics: “We’re trying to get somewhere here and they’re interfering. It’s frustrating,” he said. “I enjoy sitting down and having a meal with some of the tribal members. I respect their communities and really feel that working with them is important—it’s got to happen.”
DuVal’s scorn for instigators like Bundy was also clear: “He doesn’t live here, he doesn’t farm here, he’s not looking at dry fields every day. It’s those of us who are affected whose message needs to be heard,” he said.
Seus agreed, warning that violence would leave a mark on the Klamath Basin: “We don’t want that headline for our community,” he said. “The repercussions for all that are ours for years to come. It’s the proverbial turd in a punchbowl.”
Moreover, as Emma Maris recently explored in The Atlantic, the problems in the Klamath Basin are in fact solvable if all the parties involved take a rational and tempered approach. Instead of being the site of yet another far-right conflagration, the situation presents the opportunity to create a model for handling similar climate change-driven conflicts in the coming years:
So that’s how you end a water war. Respect Indigenous sovereignty. Make water allocations predictable and reduce the amount of water going to crops and pastures over time. Fix lake-water quality through nutrient management and wetland restoration. Take out the dams. I reckon you could do it all with $1 billion—beer money, these days—and it could serve as a model for the entire West.
Pretty much everyone I spoke with—tribal leaders, scientists, and farmers alike—broadly agree on what needs to be done (with the exception of downsizing the project). They see the guys in the tent by the canal headgates as a sideshow to the real work of fixing the basin. Apart from anything else, ripping the headgates open and letting water smash through an unprepared system of canals and ditches, some of which aren’t in great shape at the moment, could cause local floods and damage to property. But several of the people I spoke with did wonder whether the national attention the group is garnering might help reopen a conversation about doing that real work.
The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR) has been tracking the rise of “Ammon’s Army” since its inception, and has compiled a complete assessment of the organization’s considerable strength in Oregon:
If a confrontation breaks out, which local activists suggest could happen any day, People’s Rights will likely draw in outside forces from other parts of Oregon and the rest of the country.
The growing number of People’s Rights network members recruited and radicalized during the pandemic suggests that an armed occupation lead by People’s Rights network activists has the potential to be larger and more volatile than the 2016 Oregon armed standoffs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Sugar Pine Mine.
“What they’ve done is used the last year to indoctrinate a much larger group of activists, and teach them the ways of this kind of confrontational politics that’s new to a lot of these folks,” Devin Burghart, executive director at IREHR, told Vice.
An earlier IREHR report examines how the Network’s tactics play out in real life, with multiple examples of activists targeting public officials (including police officers) at their homes, shutting down health board meetings, and threatening officials involved in COV vaccine distribution.
“They’ve learned the blueprint for a kind of confrontational politics that can be applied to any issue set, whether it be water rights, land use, or parking tickets,” Burghart said.