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http://www.heraldandnews.com/articles/2004/06/14/viewpoints/op_ed/9926

Valediction: Columns I didn't write, and some ideas

Published June 13, 2004


John Walker

(On Thursday, former Publisher John Walker spoke to his fellow members of the Klamath County Rotary Club. What follows is the text, slightly abridged.)

In May, I wrote a screed on the First Amendment that I intended to follow with two more columns: one on the reciprocal obligation of the press to the freedoms granted it, and another on the obligations of those who engage the news as citizens.

Events intervened, however, and I won't write the follow-up columns. I'm not the publisher of the Herald and News anymore, and to stamp my opinions of those topics on the editorial page would be disrespectful to Heidi Wright and her staff.

I want to say that the Herald and News is in good hands. Many of you have been kind to me over the years, and I've had a better sendoff than I deserve. But don't think for a minute that the Herald and News will do anything but get better as Heidi settles into the captain's chair.


John Walker hiked Stukel Mountain and found it offered a moving perspective on the Klamath Basin.

 

Heidi brings fresh insight and outside experience to the newspaper, which will invigorate it. She also has an expanded sense of possibility, a newcomer's energy, wit and humor. It won't be long now before you hear yourselves saying, "Well, yeah, Walker was OK, but this Heidi . . . wow!"

When I came to Klamath Falls, I had every intention of retiring here. That didn't work out, but it doesn't mean I love the place any less. The Klamath Basin has come to feel like home to me, and I've been privileged to participate in the fundamental life of the community - its problems, its opportunities, its cultural environment, and, of course, its stories. And since you all expect me to be opinionated, I'll be happy to fire off a few rounds today about how I see it, and how it might get better.

What I meant to say

Before I get to that, however, I'd like to mention four topics for which I had planned, but not written, columns:

First, the staff of the Herald and News has been spectacularly helpful to the changes that I made in the newspaper and the perception of it that many of you have shared with me. Many of our employees - and there are about 100 of them - are participants in community life, and that marks an important change from many newspapers, especially newsrooms. Our journalists are not only good reporters and editors, but they're good citizens as well. There are, of course, many more fine people at the newspaper outside the newsroom staff. All are hard-working and committed to excellence.

Second, last December Gordon Hankins invited me to visit KLEOS, and I was so impressed with what he, Victoria and their staff are doing that I immediately sent a gift. When it comes to children, almost always the wholly unblemished victims of adults' neglect and abuse, it really does take a village (just not Hillary's). KLEOS is literally that. Children are given homes, good food, schooling, social skills, a work ethic and love. Ultimately, KLEOS gives children a chance to be happy, productive people who otherwise would have gone down the same sociological drain as the adults who brought them to grief.

KLEOS is wrapping up its annual fund-raiser. I hope you'll all give generously. If you haven't been to KLEOS, ask Gordon for a club tour.

Third, I was privileged to be invited on a "civic leader" trip to Hawaii in February with about 20 other locals so that we could see some of what our kids are learning in the military.

I found a few things particularly moving: The outstanding morale and professionalism of our young people in the armed forces, and the boisterous swagger of several young Marines just back from Iraq. Sen. Steve Harper was on this trip, and the moment I remember best is the affection with which he looked at, and spoke with, the young Marines we met. At the hotel, the Marines had difficulty finding berths. Steve was ready to put them up in his room. And that prompts one final memory of the trip: the genuine concern and affection that the officers, non-coms and enlisted men and women held for each other, beginning with Col. John Adkisson, but extending throughout the Kingsley squadron and the personnel of a Navy ship we toured. It made me proud to be an American.

History's course, and ours

My fourth unwritten column has to do with the water crisis.

I'm most proud of the coverage our staff provided for the water crisis, and the small role we played in bringing attention to it. As publisher, I had to be circumspect about not allowing our news stories to slant one way or the other. I'm perfectly comfortable writing slanted editorials and columns, however, and, heck, that's not only fun but helps charge the debate and motivate people.

I have one regret, that I never succeeded in persuading our editors and writers that the word "endangered," when referring to any species so designated by the federal government, should be placed in quotation marks. Because, as we all know, just as Allen Foreman and Felice Pace know, the designation of endangered (or threatened) is a political, not a scientific, designation.

If Americans had just today discovered the Klamath Basin, after having become the wealthiest people on earth, and having critically examined the damage done over time to nature and to indigenous peoples, we would not have drained those broad, shallow lakes and created the Klamath Reclamation Project. Today, we would not have subjugated the Klamath and Modoc Indians and truncated their cultures. Today, having arrived at a sense of aesthetic, rather than utilitarian, values, we likely would have made the Klamath Basin a World Heritage Site, with limited access and development.

But we discovered the Basin almost 200 years ago, and I believe the course of history at that point was nearly inevitable. That history might take a different course today does not make it right to deprive our farmers of a livelihood now.

I also believe that the Indians of the Klamath Basin have a rightful claim to this place and their traditions. I remember being chided years ago when one of our reporters wrote a story about the Klamaths celebrating the suckers - their c'waam - with a religious ceremony. They hadn't done that for decades, if ever, the critics said, and they're only doing it now as political theater.

Political theater it may have been, but it is no more invalid for a Klamath Tribes member to celebrate tradition and old religious rites than it is for me to participate in the rites of the Catholic church after decades of neglect. It is as appropriate for Klamaths to celebrate their ethnic heritage as it is for the residents of Malin to celebrate their Czech heritage.

Nor does the fact that light-skinned peoples developed technology and superior weapons faster than dark-skinned peoples indicate a light-skin superiority. Jared Diamond in "Gun, Germs and Steel" shows that the development of metals, weapons and agriculture was a matter of luck. The materials were at hand in some places, while not in others. There is only one race of people, and the differences in our skin tone are nothing more than adaptations to sunlight and climate. We are all the same.

But I think it is also wrong, and counterproductive to finding solutions, for Indians and environmentalists to claim the moral high ground because of what took place 125 years ago, or the fact that we now view the environment differently. The Indians do not, in fact, have a legitimate claim to being a more peaceful, spiritual people than whites did in 1875, and what happened then does not justify driving our farmers off the land today. Felice Pace and Indian tribes would do well to emulate, rather than denigrate, the work ethic and enterprise that our country and our farmers have made, despite all our flaws and errors, the noblest experiment in social organization created by humans.

Leave out the zealots

Will peace ever come over water? I don't know. At some point, there's hope if the Indians, ranchers and farmers will come together and leave the zealots at home. Nothing will be achieved with Felice Pace and Wendell Wood, and perhaps there are a few irrigators who hold up progress on their side. And despite the fact that our farmers have made more than a fair effort to enhance the prospects of wildlife in our watershed, they, as well as the Indians, are going to have to let idealism and ideology meet reality at the crossing called compromise. That's just the way it is.

Right now, from this podium, I'm looking at 100 or more of the most capable, creative, well-intentioned people in the Klamath Basin. A lot of you have said that I've been good for this community, and I'm honored by those words. But you are the community. You have a great opportunity, no matter how crazy the rest of the world becomes, to make Klamath Falls the shining city on the hill and to make the Basin a place where fish, farmers, birds, Indians and loggers all prosper.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with these thoughts:

1. Dawnn Brown and Mary Williams Hyde will be good stewards of the tourism money.

If the county would only overrule its staff bureaucrats and support the efforts of Carol Fellows, Jim Novak, Dale Foresee, the Wingwatchers, and Stephanie and Jim Carpenter to turn Lake Ewauna into the beautiful vision they've created, Klamath Falls will be the pride of the Cascades. I encourage you to be part of the Centennial and South Portal projects, which will infuse our area with beauty and a statement of civic pride.

2. Get ready for hybrid vigor in the business community once entrepreneurs learn how high the vacancy rate is downtown.

Here's a real-life story of why shoppers go to Medford: A friend of mine recently purchased a major household item at a locally-owned store. It wasn't working properly, so she went to the store on a Saturday afternoon - often the only free time many of us have in a week - to see if she could get somebody out to look at it. You know what she was told? "Why don't you call back Monday and tell someone your sob story?" This exemplifies a core principle of business that all of us need to learn: Complacency kills. Improve or die.

3. Get ready for Californians.

Your typical Running Y buyer will be a guy who has spent his life in the Bay area working for an aerospace firm. At age 56 he retires with a 401(k) worth a million dollars, sells his home in Walnut Creek - which he purchased in 1948 for $15,000 - for $675,000 and moves to Klamath County. Having come to think of himself as a financial genius, he paves a quarter-mile blacktop road through the forest, builds a $400,000 trophy home, joins the Sierra Club and starts bitching about growth. He'll write letters to the editor every time a neighbor attempts to cut down a tree, beginning with, "When I moved here 18 months ago, it was for peace and quiet." Don't be in denial about these people. They are coming. But do remind them, "Hey, you're the growth, butt-head!"

4. Read.

Expose yourselves to viewpoints with which you disagree, and learn real science. You have no claim to being scientific if you accuse the feds of using junk science on fish while at the same time you take horoscopes seriously or dismiss evolution as liberal blather. If that's all you do, you're just substituting your superstitions for Wendell Wood's.

5. Don't try to muzzle the press.

If you ignore inconvenient or unpleasant facts - if you deplore the use of the newspaper as a forum for your opponents - you will suffer death by ignorance. You'll be run over by the people you pretended didn't exist. You should, rather, participate in the debate and make sure to express your views.

6. Finally, be friends to each other.

I think that is perhaps the greatest strength of people in the Basin, and certainly of this club. You are of all faiths and political persuasions, and yet you are civil and friendly with each other. And when you go out for a beer, guess what? You all discover that you're this close when it comes down to helping your community. You all want good schools, a loving environment for children, economic opportunity, water and a good life. Klamath Falls has so much potential . . . you can make your dreams come true, right here.

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