Wanderers in the American wilderness once stood astonished at the sight of plains black with buffalo and gazed in wonder at skies made dark by the passage of a flight of pigeons. But today the wonder lies only in the swiftness with which the great buffalo herds were extinguished and the passenger pigeons banished from the earth.
On a mid-October day of almost any year when the southern migration along the Pacific flyway is in mid-flight, a visitor to northern California's Tule Lake may still see a sight as full of wonder as that of the buffalo and the pigeons: the sight of some 6 million ducks and geese gathered in a single rendezvous. Yet there was awesome evidence in the news that this sight too could be flicked off by man's carelessness and cupidity as readily as the picture in a magic lantern. The news was that Tule Lake was being deliberately dried up.
Located in what geographers call the Klamath basin, just south of the Oregon-California border, Tule (rhymes with duly) and its dependent Lower Klamath Lake form what is quite possibly the largest refuge for migratory waterfowl in the entire world. Without Tule's protective hospitality, which in normal years accommodates the passage of 10 million birds and the hatching of 40,000, traffic along North America's busiest flyway might well dwindle to nothing and duck hunting on the U.S. West Coast become only a memory.
The trouble is that the land on the bottom of Tule Lake, like that around its edges, is rich and black and arable, and there are those who would rather see it put to more mercenary purpose than the harboring of vagrants.
Such a conflict of interest is not a new thing in the long struggle between civilization and the wilderness, and at Tule a half century ago the U.S. Government took steps toward enlightened reconciliation in a Bureau of Reclamation project designed to shrink Tule's two lakes to manageable size, reclaim some of its marshy shore line for farming and divert some of the water for irrigation. In the course of this long-term project, the Department of the Interior, of which Reclamation is a part, turned over a considerable section of the area to the Fish and Wildlife Service as a federal refuge. Then 3½ years ago, in accordance with Interior Department practice when a reclamation project is completed, the U.S. Government turned the rest of the reclaimed area over to a local organization of 600 private landholders for maintenance. The first and foremost charge put upon this organization—the Tulelake Irrigation District—under regulations imposed by a contract that ran to 40 typewritten pages was that it keep the water level of Tule Lake at a point specified by the Government to be between 4,034 and 4,035 feet above sea level between the months of February and December.
Why this precise figure? Because that is the minimum depth required to keep the lake clear of marshy stagnation and the consequent deadly botulism that can kill feeding ducks by the thousands.
It is entirely in order to raise an eyebrow here and note that the Bureau of Reclamation employee most responsible for drawing up the terms of this complex contract was one Maurice Strantz, who is the same man who signed it as boss of the Tulelake Irrigation District, a job which paid him some $3,000 more a year than the Government had been paying him to save the lake. It is also worthy of note that the contract clause specifying maintenance of water level was promptly disregarded on the basis of a technicality.
Strantz and his TID had scarcely taken over when Tule's water level fell significantly. Death rates from botulism shot upward. Local hunters complained they couldn't get their boats across the mud flats. Both the Bureau of Reclamation and the Wildlife Service urged the TID to raise the water level, but the TID paid no attention until one April, when nests on the lowered lake shore were quick with eggs ready for hatching. Then, suddenly, the water level on Tule was raised, and an estimated 25,000 potential fledglings were flooded out.
"They're out to run us clean out of here," said one outraged wildlife man, and to many another West Coast citizen like the San Francisco Chronicle's outdoor editor, Bud Boyd, the situation stank of more than botulism. Boyd broke the story in his column; the Chronicle front-paged it; and by this month a swarm of indignant Californians led by Governor Brown was demanding explanations and investigations, both of which Interior Secretary Fred Seaton promised to provide.
The first thing Interior did was to call a meeting on the spot to discuss the whole affair; the second was to return management of the pumping stations at Tule to the Reclamation Bureau, thus insuring a disease-free water level at Tule by next February. This is an important decision and we hail the Secretary for taking it, but we hope the rectification of this one detail will not so mollify interested parties that they forget the narrowness by which tragedy to an important percentage of the nation's wildlife was averted.
The preservation and permanence of such refuges as Tule Lake seem to us at least as important as uncovering payola among disc jockeys, and we would welcome a congressional investigation into Government policies concerning these things. We would particularly like to know how it was that the fate of some 10 million birds a year was casually tossed into the hands of a man like Maurice Strantz, whose stated opinion on such matters is summed up in his protest to our reporter: "Land worth $500 an acre is too valuable to be dedicated to ducks."