[env-trinity] Redding Record Searchlight- Siskiyou sheriff's life-and-death rhetoric alarms tribes, environmental groups

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Mon Nov 7 10:42:42 PST 2011

Siskiyou sheriff's life-and-death rhetoric alarms tribes, environmental groups
By Ryan Sabalow
Posted November 5, 2011 at 11:22 p.m.


Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey talks to audience members recently at the Defend Rural America event at the Siskiyou Golden Fair grounds in Yreka.


Bob and Dusty Copeland, ranchers in Shasta Valley, attend the Defend Rural America event held recently at the Siskiyou Golden Fair grounds in Yreka.


Redding councilman Patrick Jones (right) talks to Matt Fowler of Ono, vice president of the Shasta County Cattlemen's Association, at the recent Defend Rural America event at the Siskiyou Golden Fair grounds in Yreka. "What they do here could happen in Shasta County in a year," Fowler said. "Agencies like Fish and Game are using Siskiyou County as a testing ground."
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YREKA — At a recent rally of at least 700 farmers, tea party members and conservative activists, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey spoke in almost revolutionary terms, framing the actions of federal and state regulators as threats the county's livelihood.

His message drew hearty applause from the audience, many of whom feel literally under attack. But it worries American Indian tribe members, fisheries regulators and environmentalists in a legal and policy fight to protect salmon. They say the rhetoric might inflame a tense situation, leading to possible retaliation from those who might take Lopey's message too far.

Lopey, a retired Army Reserve colonel who served in Afghanistan, likened efforts at dam removal and restrictions on irrigation water and access to public forest land to friendly fire. The crowd cheered when he said he was sworn to protect the U.S. Constitution and the citizenry from all enemies, "both foreign and domestic."

"We are, right now, in a fight for our survival," he told them. "We are fighting not only for ourselves. More importantly, we're fighting for the survival of our counties, of our local communities and our children and our grandchildren. If we don't save things like agriculture and we let them take our water and land and push us off, we won't have any public safety. We'll have no quality of life. We'll have nothing."

At his side were seven other sheriffs from Northern California and Southern Oregon, including those representing Shasta, Tehama and Trinity counties. Each later echoed Lopey's concerns that environmental regulation is causing a direct threat to their constituents' safety.

'A potential for violence'

The sheriffs' life-and-death rhetoric alarms and frustrates those on the other side of the debate, who say their push to protect threatened coho salmon runs by removing dams along the Klamath River and changing water use practices on its Scott and Shasta rivers tributaries already had led to tense situations before the tone of the debate changed and the sheriffs got involved.

Now, they're worried the heated talk could lead to retaliation or intimidation from those who believe they have the support of the counties' top law enforcement leaders.

"Any time people feel like they have backing from local elected officials, it's more intense," said Molli White, a Karuk Tribe member and representative of the Klamath Justice Coalition. "I think there's definitely a potential for violence."

Even before the tone of the debate grew so heated, tribal members made sure never to drive around some parts of Siskiyou County in vehicles showing the tribal insignia out of fear they'd be harassed, she said.

State game wardens say they, too, have been getting "vague" threats for at least a year, although so far no one has acted on them.

At least one Scott Valley rancher, 59-year-old Mark Baird, says he and others are willing to take things "as far as the state wants to take it," in their fight to protect their way of life, although he said he hopes it doesn't escalate to violence.

"The coho is being used to destroy our economy and our way of life just the way the spotted owl was used," Baird said. "They're not going to do that here. The people here will fight for their property. Period. ... How far are we willing to go? That's up the government. How far do they want to push it?"

Lopey defends remarks

Lopey says he's actually striving to "defuse the tension."

"What I'm doing — what all we're trying to do — is avert violent confrontations," Lopey said.

He said he's merely trying to raise awareness and make state and federal regulators heed his county's concerns and coordinate with local officials when they hash out and implement their plans, as required by law.

He lists off a litany of ways he believes federal and state fisheries officials have violated locals' rights since he took office in 2010. These include, he said, entering ranchers' properties without search warrants, intimidating them and "stealing" their constitutionally protected right to their deeded water.

As an officer charged with protecting public safety, he says he's worried the "ridiculous, stupid policies forced upon" his community based on what he believes to be poor science will balloon his county's already high unemployment rates. If that happens, he says, he sees crime and drug use raging out of control as more jobs are lost and the tax base that pays for his deputies shrinks.

He said the agencies and regulators need to understand what's at stake in his county, where the timber-based economy already was decimated in the mid-1990s in a fight over logging spotted owl habitat.

Now, it's fish the environmental groups value more than hardworking people's livelihoods, Lopey said.

"I love fish and wildlife. I'm an outdoors guy, but I care more about my people in my county than the fish," Lopey said. " ... Frankly, I contend these farmers are the best conservationists. They do a better job at conserving the land than a lot of these other groups."

DFG director rebuffs lopey

Although he says federal agencies also are violating his county's rights, the largest target of Lopey's ire is the state's Department of Fish and Game.

Responding last month to a letter Lopey had sent demanding the agency coordinate with Siskiyou County officials, DFG Director Charlton H. Bonham bluntly rebuffed Lopey's legal assertions that the DFG has an obligation to consult with local officials on "all programs, activities or projects that could impact Siskiyou County's economy or social programs."

"The department must protect and preserve the fish and wildlife resources of the state for the benefit of all of the public and future generations," Bonham wrote. "This requirement is reflected in numerous provisions embodied in the California Constitution, many statutory provisions and in judicial decisions rendered throughout the state's history. I understand you may object to resource protection laws under policy grounds, but as a law enforcement matter, the department looks forward to your continued cooperation as an officer of the law."

Bonham also sent a copy of his letter to Siskiyou County's attorney, Thomas P. Guarino.

DFG Assistant Chief Mike Carion said his wardens have heard of "vague threats" for about a year, although not from a particular person or group. He said the rhetoric has intensified and grown more politically charged during that time, making wardens' jobs more difficult.

Because wardens are charged with enforcing laws that protect fish, they've been trying to find a way to get ranchers and farmers to use irrigation water in ways that don't drain the salmon-sustaining Scott and Shasta rivers dry when the fish need it most, he said.

"We're not looking to take people to jail," Carion said. "We're just trying to get them into compliance (with the law)."

Compounding the challenges, Carion said, wardens also are taking legal heat from all sides, having been sued by both the farmers and environmental and fisheries groups over the DFG's water-diversion enforcement policies. The farmers contend the DFG is being too strict. The coho groups allege the agency isn't regulating enough.

Both cases are pending.

'Blatantly obvious' where Lopey stands

Erica Terence, conservation and executive director of Orleans-based Klamath Riverkeeper, said fish are protected under laws and constitutional statutes, something she thinks Lopey and his fellow sheriffs choose to forget.

She said that while no one wants to see the farmers lose their livelihoods, others' livelihoods also are at stake in the fight over coho, including commercial and recreational fishermen and the tribes who harvest the salmon that come down the Klamath from the Scott and Shasta rivers.

"The bottom line is everybody's got to follow some rules, including in Siskiyou County," Terence said.

Lopey's politically charged speech follows a pattern of intimidation toward people who don't share the county leaders' point of view, seeming to "elevate the rights of some people over the rights of others," she said.

"That doesn't seem American to me," Terence said.

She said she and other environmentalists worry Lopey and his deputies won't enforce the laws with which they disagree. That includes protecting the environmental groups when they voice their opinions.

Before an August public meeting in Fort Jones, she said, wardens told her they'd provide security because they didn't think Lopey's deputies would defend the environmentalists if a confrontation broke out "because it's so blatantly obvious the sheriff has taken a very political stand."

Lopey called that allegation "a blatant, unprofessional, very inaccurate statement" from an "activist group" his deputies have investigated for trespassing on farmers' land to take pictures of their water diversions.

"I will protect the rights of an environmental activist so long as they are following the law," Lopey said.

Lopey said he wants to have a good working relationship with fisheries managers and wardens, but it's up to them to coordinate with him to discuss what's in the best interest of his community.

"I'm trying to defuse the tensions," Lopey said. "I'm trying to listen to everybody's views. But these federal and state agencies, they don't get it. They're not listening."

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