Friday, December 16, 2015, Congress adjourned and killed fourteen years of compromise between tribes, agriculture and the dam's owners all because the fear of darkness was stronger than the presence of good.
The better angels in our government suffocated under the "process." I warned U.S. Interior Secretary Jewell and the White House, bi-weekly, from the day after Labor Day until the President flew off to his Hawaiian Christmas, Congress would fail if the White House didn't grab hold of this story, racial reconciliation in the West, and in turn, the largest conservation victory in U.S. history.
Congress was never going to succeed on their own. Before Clinton left the White House, his Secretary of Interior knew Congress would fail and had Clinton make the first Executive Order on the Klamath. Eight years later, after the twin disasters of 2001 and 2002, George W. Bush knew Congress would fail and put into motion what became the settlement framework just six weeks before leaving office. Oregon and California did get together. Forty-six local groups compromised, the path was clear, Oregon and California had the money set aside and the little secret was out: these dams do nothing for agriculture and cost more to fix than remove.
Tragically, the White House would not lift a finger; Interior Secretary Jewell would not dial-up the utility executives who were waiting by the phone or the angriest Republican House members who were looking for the out.
I decided to go around failed Congressional politics make the film, A River Between Us, so Americans could do what I did: fall in love with the people of the Klamath. Film, widely distributed, creates something every politician wants: cover.
Five years later, A River Between Us, the film and social campaign were unleashed on the White House the day after Labor Day, 2015 and to the nation a few weeks later. The project went viral and daily adds audiences from iTunes, Amazon and Netflix.
A year earlier, when Secretary Jewell waved off protocol and allowed me to interview her for the film I thought the river finally had a champion, someone who could see the larger issues, and work with me to finish the complicated deal. But her staff made sure she would never get off message again. Even after her predecessors, Secretary Babbitt and Secretary Salazar were briefed on my plan, Jewell punted to her staff who quickly buried it and called for more "stake holder meetings."
Jewell's staff was dismissive of the endeavor and remained totally committed to a Congressional path despite the twenty-year track record of failure. Her staff blocking me, I had to drive five hours to attend a reception in October just to talk to Secretary Jewell for two minutes and hand her the political playbook to get this done. "I know, I know, I know," she told me, "I'm on the Atkinson plan," and put the two-pager in her purse.
Tom Perez, U.S. Secretary of Labor is an old friend and tried to help. Hon. Robin Carnahan, Walter Isaacson, Hon. Tom Daschle, Hon. Mickey Edwards, executives at Google, Former Governor Kitzhaber, Doug Walker, the Mayor of Los Angeles, countless colleagues from the Aspen Institute, the fly fishing industry, the outfitting industry, partners in conservation: Orvis, FishPond, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, all coming on to convey a simple strategy build on solid legal and political grounds: like Clinton and Bush, President Obama moves, Congress finishes the balance, crises avoided, and a bold history carved.
All presidents worry about legacy at the end of their second term and look for easy victories, but never before has something so large been given the cultural back-up of a film. Surrogates whom I am forever grateful, people who saw the precedent and the importance of it to the country, weekly helped me get it to Valerie Jarrett, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Christy Goldfuss at CEQ, and around Secretary Jewell's over-protective staff directly to her.
The December Saturday in 2015, my son's thirteenth birthday party in rural Oregon, a bunch of boys bowling leftover pumpkins with two-liter soda bottles in the barn, I'm taking calls from U.S. Senators and Governor's reassuring them time is running out and they have to join the call for the POTUS to take dams off the table. They simply could not understand how I took the story around them with film, and Americans wanted the people of the Klamath to succeed. I was fighting the darkness of political ignorance like a wack-a-mole at the county fair with people who were elected. They are suppose to understand the art of the deal, the struggle of half a loaf, understand the power of giving credit away, but they couldn't get there. When I told one of the key Congressional members Troy Fletcher, Executive Director of the Yurok tribe and peacemaker with agriculture in the film, had died from a stress induced heart attack before Thanksgiving, I got a chuckle and the defense, "Well, what do you want me to do about it?" I was speechless and felt a cold chill wash over me.
4:00 am, Pacific Time December 16, the day Congress is marching in for final votes in Washington, D.C., I was still working the phones and trying to get what so many want: respect. But it was not to be. The President's golf clubs were loaded on Air Force One; no one took the anger in the West seriously before Christmas. "We'll deal with the tribes after the break" was the mantra for the 186th year in a row, and the Klamath is just some far-off forgotten place in someone else's district.
In a loose Latin interpretation now in 2016, we've slipped from a tempest into a cluster. It took 46 groups 15 years to craft a settlement our Government failed to endorse. The entire Klamath settlement, held together by tooth floss the last two extra years, evaporated on New Years day. We lost key leaders in tribal government and agriculture. Tribes start the year fighting each other for money under the concept of "tribal parity." The funds the states set aside to do this are land-locked. Oregon can't spend Oregonians money on California dams, and California money is tied to Congress passing "something." Settlement parties are back to their corners with new people, people who didn't put the old deal together, people who don't have relationships across the divide, people whose incentives are to start over and try to get a better deal.
Government failed us, but I tell those who worked so hard to hold their heads high and be proud of what we did. Profiles in Courage was never about a committee of likeminded people in Government, it was about the true leaders who give unselfishly, believe unwaveringly, and lay themselves down so a country can be built on their shoulders. I still believe in our better nature. I believe in the institution and the honor of public service. I believe, even though I can't articulate a strategy, good can come from this. But I don't believe these Americans, serving in Government today, have any idea what they did by failing the people Klamath nor how the Klamath was the precedent for healing in our country. Good people did something and darkness triumphed. This just is not how it is suppose to be.