Since the time of its first white settlers, the US West has been paradoxically imagined as a place of infinite natural abundance and looming resource scarcity. In the era of accelerating drought brought on by fossil fuel-induced climate change and water mismanagement,1 long-standing resource anxiety increasingly manifests as discourse about imminent “water wars.” Yet while many dread such conflict, others may welcome it: white supremacist and armed militia groups are increasingly embracing claims of environmental scarcity—stoking fear, building membership, and threatening violence in media-grabbing spectacles.2 A recent example from southern Oregon demonstrates that such extragovernmental context is vital to water-policy considerations.

In the spring of 2021, extreme drought across southern Oregon led the Bureau of Reclamation to declare, for the first time, that no water would be diverted from Upper Klamath Lake to supply regional farms. In anger and dismay, some locals blamed regional Indigenous peoples such as the Klamath Tribes, who maintain water rights to protect culturally important species such as salmon and lampreys. With the recently-won uneasy peace around water-rights threatened, many began to fear the resurgence of the “farms versus fish” binary that speciously claims conflict is inevitable.3

Enter People’s Rights—a network of “militia members, anti-maskers, conspiracists, preppers, anti-vaxxers, and others” cultivated by far-right activist Ammon Bundy and his sympathizers.4 Threatening to break open the canal gates, they set up a “water crisis info center” that locals wryly called “the circus tent.” Print and television media were quick to report this spectacle with little historical context or critical commentary. The New York Times heralded a “new water war” brewing in the West.5 Neon sign-like headlines warned: “Ammon Bundy Coming Soon,” even though no more than a handful of supporters ever arrived and Bundy remained nowhere in sight.6 

Redubbing the “water crisis info center” a “circus tent,” locals deflated the crisis discourse that has long propped up far-right spectacles, from the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (2016), the standoff at Bundy Ranch (2014), and the semi-staged melodrama of the State of Jefferson separatist movement in the 1940s to nineteenth-century journalistic support for settler militias’ extreme violence against Indigenous peoples.7 Locals recognized the circus tent as another spectacle in this longer history of anti-Indigenous violence, an old pattern reshaping  itself in an era of climate chaos.

Researchers have documented that the genocidal and environmental warfare of “settler colonialism” has made the region what it is today.8 Settler colonialism is an ongoing structure of invasion and extraction animated by a logic of elimination and an unending drive to acquire more resources.9 Settler miners, loggers, ranchers, and homesteaders have attacked Indigenous peoples by targeting their natural and cultural resources, burning agricultural fields, exterminating bison herds, and polluting fish habitats.10

Informed by this historical context, Klamath Tribes members identified the People’s Rights’ bravado as a credible threat of cultural genocide. Opening the canal gates would result in another massive fish die-off, and Klamath Tribal member Joey Gentry made the stakes clear: “If the fish die, our people die.”11 As climate collapse accelerates, so, too, does the threat of environmental discourse like “water wars”—which perpetuates and justifies violence and ecofascism.12 The “circus tent” critique warns that ecofascism is dangerous despite—nay, because of—its sensational but superficial rhetoric.

The tent came down unceremoniously at the end of the summer of 2021, after the Klamath Water Users Association, the Klamath Tribes, and local community organizations denounced People’s Rights as ill-informed outside agitators with no real solutions, intent on putting the community at risk to promote a reactionary political agenda. This de-escalation reminds journalists, academics, and policy-makers not to take for granted the inevitability of “water wars”: in doing so, we may inadvertently legitimize militia agitation by granting the agitators their premise. Instead, we must amplify events like the intertribal Run4Salmon13 and consult the leadership of Klamath river communities such as the Yurok, Klamath-Modoc-Yahooskin, and Karuk Tribes, who conduct multidisciplinary research on the interconnections of aquatic ecosystems, prescribed fire, and community mental health.14 The “circus tent” case teaches us to be prudent with the language we use, to prepare ourselves to defuse white supremacist scare tactics, and to follow the lead of communities that are pursuing waterways based in relations of care and responsibility.

  1. Bradley W. Parks, “What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Drought,” OPB: Oregon Public Broadcasting, May 13, 2021,; Emma Marris, “The West Can End the Water Wars Now,” Atlantic, June 5, 2021,; Andrew Morris, “California’s Water Mismanagement Leads to Farming Crossroads,” San Diego News Desk, September 18, 2021, ↩︎
  2. Oliver Milman, “Climate Denial Is Waning on the Right. What’s Replacing It Might Be Just as Scary,” Guardian, November 21, 2021, ↩︎
  3. Jessica Fu, “Tensions Rise in Klamath Basin as Feds Further Reduce Water Allotments to Farmers,” Counter, May 21, 2021,; Gary Pitzer, “When Water Worries Often Pit Farms vs. Fish, a Sacramento Valley Farm Is Trying to Address the Needs of Both,” Water Education Foundation, August 24, 2018, ↩︎
  4. Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, Ammon’s Army: Inside the Far-Right ‘People’s Rights’ Network, A Special Report by the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights and the Montana Human Rights Network (Kansas City, MO: Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, 2021), ↩︎
  5. Mike Baker, “Amid Historic Drought, a New Water War in the West,” New York Times, June 1, 2021, (subscription required) ↩︎
  6. Ryan Sabalow, “Ammon Bundy Coming Soon: Federal Water Cutoffs Igniting Rebellion in Northern California,” Sacramento Bee, May 27, 2021, (subscription required) ↩︎
  7. Stephen Beckham, Requiem for a People: The Rogue Indians and the Frontiersmen (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 1996); Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012) ↩︎
  8. Cutcha Risling Baldy, “Why We Gather: Traditional Gathering in Native Northwest California and the Future of Bio-Cultural Sovereignty,” Ecological Processes 2, no. 17 (June 2013), ↩︎
  9. Dina Gilio-Whitaker, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019). ↩︎
  10. Kyle Whyte, “Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Injustice,” Environment and Society 9, no. 1 (2018): 25–44. ↩︎
  11. Jeremy Raff, “‘If the Fish Die, the People Die’: Water Wars in America’s West,” Al Jazeera, 10 November 10, 2121, ↩︎
  12. April Anson, “No One is a Virus: On American Ecofascism,” Environmental History Now, October 21, 2020, See also Peter Staudenmaier, Ecology Contested: Environmental Politics Between Left and Right (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2021) ↩︎
  13. Run4Salmon (website), Winnemem Wintu Tribe, ↩︎
  14. Karuk Tribe, Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, 2019, ↩︎