One man’s battle to free the Klamath

[The Obama administration and California officials are set to announce an agreement to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, sidestepping Congress to restore its salmon and steelhead fisheries. The move would result in the largest river restoration in U.S. history. A news conference trumpeting the deal will take place today at the Yurok Reservation in Klamath (Del Norte County), with Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown joining Oregon Gov. Kate Brown; Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency Administrator Kathryn Sullivan; and PacifiCorp's Stefan Bird. Here, Drake contributor Steven Hawley tells the extraordinary story of former Oregon state Sen. Jason Atkinson, who's played an integral role in the process. —ed.]

If Jason Atkinson’s life was made into a movie, the trailer might look something like this: 2010, a black-tie affair, VIP’s, pomp and circumstance, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Atkinson and his son Perry in the wings. Arnold passes a pen to Ted who passes the pen symbolically to son Perry. The Governors have just signed an historic agreement to tear down four dams on the Klamath River. Fade to: a hot southern Oregon summer afternoon, July 2008. Atkinson is tuning up a friend’s bicycle in his garage. He unstraps a small bag from beneath the seat of the bike. As he tosses the bag on the floor, the gun inside it goes off. A .38-caliber bullet strikes him near his right femoral artery. His wife Stephanie saves his life, applying a tourniquet, and orchestrating his quick delivery to the hospital in Medford. After 48 hours of dread and uncertainty, doctors announce Atkinson will live, but lose his right leg. The patient regains consciousness. The first thing he notices is the TV. On screen, President George W. Bush is cavorting with bikini-clad women playing beach volleyball. He is in Beijing for the Olympics. A shot of adrenalin shoots through Atkinson’s veins as he recalls communiqués he’s had with some of Bush’s White House staff. Doctors arrive and grimly share with Atkinson the news about his leg. He tells them: “You are not taking my leg. Do whatever you have to do to save it.” He then turns to his wife: “Did we get our Klamath deal done?”

Months later, both legs intact, but only the left functioning well, Atkinson defies doctor’s orders. Painstakingly, he dons waders and loads his fly rod into his beat-up Chevy Suburban. Awkwardly working the gas and brake with only his good left leg, he drives east over the mountains, to his family’s home river, the Klamath. He weaves the legs of the walker he’s using through the elastic straps of his waders, tucks his rod under his arm, and ventures into the current.

klamath2He hooks no fish. He doesn’t drown, either, but finds it’s impossible to move back upstream, where the Suburban is parked. He begins to crawl one-legged up a steep bank. The crux of the pitch is near the top, where the shoulder of the road is now tantalizingly close. He tosses his rod up to the roadside. Several minutes later, he’s laying utterly spent on the shoulder of the road, an absurd, paraplegic tangle of leaves, vines, mud, and tattered neoprene. The walker is still woven into his waders. He wriggles by the roadside and rejoins his rod. Glancing up the road, he sees the grill of a familiar pickup. The driver’s side window rolls down as the rig approaches. “Jason?” The driver is clearly astonished, as if he’s come upon a fishing angel that got kicked out of steelhead heaven. “I thought you were dead!”

“Thanks pal,” Atkinson stammers. “Good to see you, too.”

The story is true, but Atkinson isn’t up to claiming the role of hero. “My wife has forgiven me for not thanking her for saving my life first before I asked about the Klamath,” he says sheepishly.

Atkinson is in some ways the prototype small-town-boy-makes-good story. Tall, dark, charismatic, a self-proclaimed “Roosevelt Republican,” talkative but quick-witted, with a knack for spinning an entertaining yarn, it’s easy to see how he was elected to the Oregon state Senate by the time he was 30. He was re-elected twice more, but decided not to run again in 2012. It wasn’t the tax on his health from the accident that made him quit. “Steelhead fishing ruined my life,” he says. But he’s quite happily ruined.

“Jason probably thinks God is a steelhead,” says former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski. “I’m a steelheader, but on a scale of one to ten, I’m a seven or eight in terms of my intensity. Jason is an eleven.”

Funny though, how the beautiful lives of fish or the life of a river starts to infiltrate the happily-ruined fisherman’s non-angling hours. “Jason’s connection to the Klamath is personal,” says Kulongoski. “It’s a family connection, through his father and his grandparents. So when it comes to fixing the river, he’s fearless. When we were trying to get a bill passed in the state legislature to finance Klamath dam removal, he was the only Republican to stand up and advocate for a power rate increase to make it happen.”

Atkinson quit a more generalized career in legislative politics for a more specialized shot at revolutionizing the dysfunctional politics of his home river. “So I set out to make a movie about a river almost no one can find on a map, for an audience that doesn’t care,” says Atkinson, referring to his 2015 documentary, A River Between Us. He saw the transformation from lawmaker to filmmaker as a necessity in his recovery from the gunshot accident.

Documentary film producer Jeff Martin partnered with Atkinson to make the movie. “Jason drove the film from a vision standpoint, and he did all the fundraising,” Martin says. “It was a challenge. A Republican raising money to make a film about the environment was a tough sell. But Jason has many talents. He was a bike racer, and a ski racer. You go out to his barn and he’s got old cars he’s restoring. He built a pizza oven out on his back deck. He just has a knack for figuring out how to get things done.”

But even the most insightful mind would find fixing the Klamath a vexing challenge. In 2010, after years of dicey, complex negotiation, Oregon and California signed the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. The KBRA would remove four dams on the Klamath by 2020 and allocate water for farmers while keeping water in the river for salmon and steelhead. Unfortunately, it featured language that required the U.S. Congress to ratify portions of the agreement. Atkinson knew Congress would fail. “Some of us figured Congress would fail even when Bill Clinton, and then Bush were in office,” he says. “That’s why we were pushing for executive action back then. We were close. But Clinton chose to designate monuments, and Bush got sidetracked by a shredding economy.” Atkinson figured the issue needed what many western water issues could use—more attention paid to it by folks whose lives haven’t been ruined by steelhead fishing. “So I quit the Senate. I had a plan. I wanted to make a movie about a river for people who take a subway to work in the morning. I wanted to make a movie that would make them fall in love with the people I love on the Klamath. And show them that if you heal these people, they will heal the river.”

When Atkinson speaks of healing and love and the yearning for redemption and reconciliation over the long-standing war of farms versus fish, he’s not talking like a conservative. At least not in the modern sense. Yet these are values he espouses routinely in conversation about these topics. The disconnect, says Atkinson, is not his fault. “There was a time when it was okay for Republicans to talk about rivers and ducks and fish and wildlife,” he says. “And there was a time when Democrats could talk about these things without threatening to sue someone over it. That model is broken, as far as I’m concerned. Some of the best people in the conservation fight are sidelined right now, and have been for a long time, because their [political] party won’t let them speak. Good people can’t reach across the aisle because they’re being held hostage by the politics of the far right and the far left. That’s one of the things I’m hoping the film will change.”

A River Between Us depicts the very human side of how a few traditional enemies came to begrudgingly respect, then awkwardly tolerate, and, eventually, appreciate and occasionally even enjoy one another’s company as they tried to figure out how to share water in a place where it happens to be scarce. Adversaries become all too human. The short-sightedness of successive human generations, and the misunderstandings that evolved from that, begin to dissolve.

It’s an accomplishment that only a seasoned filmmaker—or in Atkinson’s case, a man with a highly specific mission—could accomplish. “In my grandparents’ house on our river, there was an ‘R’ and a ‘D,’ [a Republican and Democrat]. Yet they agreed on most things. And they both wanted this river healed. And in their absence, that’s become my job. Remember, the Klamath is one of the birthplaces of flyfishing for steelhead. And my family was there for the start of it. We’ve been fishing the same riffles out in front of our place since the 1920s.”

Though Atkinson is intimately familiar with the Klamath, his film uncovered new perspectives on neighbors he thought he knew well. “One day we were shooting at one of the dams, and nothing was going well. I’m stressed. I walk away and have a short word with one of the Klamaths [Indians] we’re there to film. Then it occurs to me: the reason none of this is working is that we’ve been looking at these dams the wrong way. We tend to talk about a concrete structure with policy and energy and wildlife implications—typical white-guy government stuff. But to my Indian friends, these dams are symbolic. They’re symbolic in the same way the confederate flag is for black folks in South Carolina. It’s a lot more than a policy issue. It’s personal and religious.”

Which makes the failure of the political process, both for Atkinson and others with a stake in the health of the Klamath, a much more bitter pill to swallow. Since the film debuted in early 2015, it has earned accolades, along with wider viewership than anyone had a right to expect. The film has done its job. But Congress could not.

The story of how politicians snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on the Klamath could make even a hardened cynic swoon with disgust. Back in 2001, farmers were cut off from Klamath water. Then in 2002, thanks to an intervention by Dick Cheney, they got their water during a drought year, causing the deaths of some 70,000 returning salmon. For several years after that, tensions ran at an all-time high. Then a federal court in Oregon ordered Indians, fishermen, and ranchers into mediation. According to Glen Spain, an attorney for commercial fishermen, the process humanized men who’d hated each other on general principle for many generations. “Farmers and fishermen are basically the same,” said Spain. “We’re both blue-collar food providers. But the irrigators didn’t like the fact that everyone else was getting along, so in that initial round, they pulled up stakes and went home.”

But Klamath irrigators came back a few years later, hat in hand, after losing in every possible legal venue. Tribes the length of the Klamath, courts affirmed, have reserved water rights that supersede agricultural water rights.

It took years beyond that initial meeting, but by late 2007, Klamath tribes, farmers, fishermen, and some conservation groups were getting close to hammering out a deal. While wearing his state Senator’s hat, Atkinson worked tirelessly on behalf of the agreement, keeping both federal and state officials informed of what was happening, soliciting support from wherever he could find it. But in the back of his mind, he knew the agreement would brew a different kind of trouble. The slim possibility of a brokered deal on the Klamath had given politicians just the cover they needed to wash their hands of any responsibility for the future of the river. Hammer out an agreement amongst yourselves, senators and congressional staffers advised, and then we will do our part. “But we knew Congress couldn’t get it done,” Atkinson recalls. “I was the only Oregon Republican that attended the signing ceremony for the KBRA back in 2010. That’s why we were pushing the Bush Administration to get something done at the end of their time in office, to take some of what was toxic to Congress off the table.”

When Atkinson talks about what was “toxic,” to Congress, he’s referring to dam removal. Getting Republicans to endorse tearing out a dam, regardless of its size, age, or usefulness, remains as big a long shot as getting the same party to endorse Bernie Sanders. Last fall, when Oregon’s lone Republican, Greg Walden, was asked about his misgivings over the Klamath deal, which would have taken good care of his constituent farmers in exchange for dam removal, he revealed his own paranoid domino-theory on dam deconstruction by commenting that, by allowing Klamath dams to go, a Republican hell of free-flowing rivers would follow. “First the Klamath, then the Columbia, then, you know, on to Moscow,” Walden said.

It’s easy, and often disconcertingly accurate, to blame high-level officials and members of Congress for the death of generally good ideas like restoring the Klamath. But the deal also had flaws from the start that were made painfully obvious by five years of biblical-scale drought. Amy Cordalis is an attorney for the Yurok tribe, who’ve fished the lower Klamath on the northern California coast for thousands of years. She also plays a starring role in A River Between Us. “I really love Jason,” Cordalis says. “And I think he’s right about the importance of healing people as well as the river. But we also know that fish need water. And what the last few years tell us is that, under the provisions of the KBRA, we would have a river with no dams, but also a river with not enough water.” The Yurok withdrew support from the agreement in October.

“The agreement wasn’t perfect,” acknowledges Atkinson. “But we had people willing to put their differences aside—people willing to forgo some of their rights and powers for the good of the river and the people that depend on it. Now, because we didn’t act, we have people retreating to their defensive positions. Lawsuits. Finger-pointing. More animosity. Government can and should do better.”

In the short-term, Atkinson is heartened that many of the parties to the now-defunct KBRA have re-affirmed a commitment to get the dams torn out in a way that circumvents any involvement from Congress. (At the end of February, the states of California and Oregon, energy company Pacific Power—which owns the dams— along with the Yurok, Hoopa, and Klamath Tribes, all signed an agreement to continue working toward Klamath dam removal.) For the long term, any conversation with Atkinson about future plans includes his desire to get back into public service. For the time being, though, his stalwart belief in good government, that politicians should serve not only at the will of the people, but for their general welfare, seems a hindrance to getting back into the game. This predicament doesn’t seem to discourage him much. “I swing for steelhead, which means I’m always looking downstream,” he says. “Thinking of this miraculous fish that has swam from maybe Japan to my hand. When I’m in the river, I’m thinking not about what is, but what should be.”

Saving the Klamath has become Atkinson’s singular, full-time mission. “There’s no back-up plan for me,” he says. “If you’re gonna change the world, you have to be in a hundred percent.”