Amid a tense standoff between farmers and federal law enforcement officials, the sheriff of drought-plagued Klamath County, Ore., has asked federal officers to leave town, saying their presence is making matters worse.
The request could force U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton to make the awkward choice between flouting a local request or leaving federal head gates unguarded after protesters repeatedly forced them open to release water for their dried-up farms.
Interior spokesmen would not speculate Sunday on how Sheriff Tim Evinger's request, faxed to Washington late Saturday night, would be received.
"It will be evaluated when the appropriate officials get into the office [today], and a decision will be made at some point," said Jeffrey S. McCracken, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman.
The head gates monitor water flow from Upper Klamath Lake to an irrigation channel serving 1,200 family farms straddling the Oregon-California border. The Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the gates, kept them shut this year, citing a major drought and Endangered Species Act obligations to supply water to the threatened coho salmon and two endangered fish species called suckers.
Angry farmers forced the head gates open four times before National Park police arrived July 14 to stand guard, while farmers and other protesters set up an encampment on the other side of a chain-link fence.
Evinger said that although he earlier requested federal law enforcement assistance, he now believes their presence is exacerbating tensions.
In his letter to Interior, he wrote that "in spite of our desire that you use a measured response, federal law enforcement officials reacted in such a way to heighten the tensions in Klamath County by creating a barricade to the head gates."
Evinger read the letter late Saturday to a cheering crowd of 150 farmers and supporters at an encampment rally. He said Sunday he does not plan to guard the gates himself if federal officials leave.
"I'm not going to be party to enforcing a federal law on federal property that is destructive to the entire community I represent," he said.
Gavin Rajnus, 33, a fourth-generation farmer from Malin, Ore., praised Evinger's action and said the demonstration would remain peaceful.