This is the entrance to Camp Tulelake, which was used to detain Japanese Americans during World War II. It is now part of the National Park Service. [Gary Coronado/ Los Angeles Times/TNS]

Troubles at Tule Lake

Efforts to build a barbed-wire fence around the Tule Lake Airport are stirring controversy, including heated protests from Japanese-Americans who claim it would further damage a "sacred" site.

The airport is located on 358 acres on part of what was the 7,400-acre World War II Tule Lake Segregation Center. At its peak, Tule Lake was the largest and most controversial of 10 internment camps. About 18,700 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated at the center, located near the community of Newell south of the Oregon-California border.

The airport is primarily used by Macy's Flying Service, which since 1956 has provided agricultural chemicals and fertilizers by ground or air for farmers in far Northern California and Southern Oregon.

Modoc County manages the airport through a lease with the city of Tulelake, which owns the airport. The county has proposed building a 16,000-foot-long, 8-foot-tall perimeter fence around the airport, primarily to prevent wildlife from crossing the airfield. Mitch Crosby, Modoc County road commissioner, also described the existing fence as "an old, dilapidated fence that doesn't really keep anything out" and off the runway.

Modoc County is seeking public comment on a draft environmental impact statement. Comments are being taken through Oct. 10.

Members of the Tule Lake Committee, which include people incarcerated at Tule Lake, their relatives and other Japanese-Americans, oppose the fence. In July 2014, the group filed suit against Modoc County and Tulelake claiming a proper public environmental review process had not been done. Crosby said the groups held negotiations for 18 months but said they ended when, "There was no agreement to move forward. The hopes were we could come up with some common ground and agreement."

Mike Ishi, a member of the Tule Lake Committee who lives in New York, expressed disappointment that negotiations ended, saying, "I think there's a need for everyone to come to the table and see how we can move forward."

He said constructing a barbed-wire fence — barbed wire was used around the Tule Lake Segregation Center — has "really affected people."

"I certainly understand there's a community that lives there full-time year round," Ishi said of people living in the Tulelake Basin. "We're not trying to destroy people's livelihoods. I try to stay very open and sensitive to the local perspective. But this is a site that has international importance. People come from all over the world to see that site."

The airport is not part of the Tule Lake Unit of World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which covers 37 acres of the former camp. A general management plan is being developed by the National Park Service for the Tule Lake Unit, which also includes Camp Tulelake and The Peninsula. Park officials have repeatedly said they have no plans to seek to expand lands.

Ishi believes a fence could damage historic artifacts, not only from Tule Lake but also Native Americans. "This land has many hidden histories woven into it."

While Tule Lake Committee members from Northern California have been the most vocal opponents to the fence, Ishi said the issue impacts people of Japanese ancestry nationally. "I'm from New York and I'm trying to convey to you that people all over the country are concerned. This has sparked deep concern in our community." He notes online petitions against a fence have generated more than 37,000 signatures.

In a Facebook posting urging opposition, Tule Lake Committee member Barbara Takai says Macy's Flying Service owner Nick Macy "doesn’t want to deal with the inconvenience of moving the airport, arguing his family's 'legacy' business has the right to remain at the present location. In other words, his family’s self-interest should prevail over preserving a civil rights site that has significance for an entire nation."

"This isn't anything that came out of the blue. It's a basic need," Macy said, noting discussions about a new airport fence began in 2004. "We're not trying to keep people out. We're trying to keep people safe."

Macy and Crosby note a wildlife hazard site study done in 2016 recommended a fence be built. The report, however, did not recommend any specific type of fence or exact location. The report said a fence could deter deer, coyotes and dogs but would not prevent hazards from waterfowl and birds.

Macy also discounted suggestions the airport be moved, saying it is "in a perfect location" for regional agricultural users. "For the past 65 years the airport has lived in harmony with the communities," he said.

Property for the airport was given to the city of Tulelake by the federal government in 1951 for use as an airport.

"It's a lot more complex than they make it out to be," Macy said of comments by the Tule Lake Committee. "There was nothing here when the airport was established."

He also believes it is hypocritical that the committee didn't object when the National Park Service replaced a fence at the Tule Lake Unit with the same type of barbed-wire fence proposed for the airport.

As both fence proponents and opponents like Nick Macy and Mike Ishi say, "It's a complicated issue."

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at or 541-880-4139.

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