Our wild fish stocks are at a turning point in Oregon
Dams are coming down. Studies are showing that inbred hatchery pukes are no substitute for (and are in fact complicit in the destruction of) native fish. Ocean conditions have returned to high productivity, providing a buffet of marine life for a huge run of coho. And thoughtful conservation minded individuals are climbing the ranks at even the most backward state and federal agencies that affect our watersheds.
At the same time, our fall chinook populations are crashing this year, maybe hitting bottom on some rivers. Ideologically outdated fisheries managers continue to equate angler opportunity with angler harvest. County commissioners are demanding the opportunity to destroy some of the most fragile, productive, publically-owned temperate rainforest in the state. And our region is poised for continued growth – which translates to further encroachment on floodplains and water resources.
As native fish advocates prepare to battle politicians, hatchery-heads, and short-sightedness, we need to arm ourselves. In order to protect and restore our rivers, we need to have the knowledge of the historical productivity and condition of the watersheds. And in order to fight a long, seemingly futile battle against politically entrenched, well-funded enemies, you need to have manic optimism.
Rapp’s book, What the River Reveals, is an exploration of what constitutes a healthy river in the Pacific Northwest. Rapp’s home water is our own McKenzie River, and she uses it throughout the book to illustrate how a river can appear pristine, but not necessarily be healthy, as salmon populations are disconnected from spawning habitat, fallen trees are removed from the river and water is diverted to power plants and irrigation.
The book provides some excellent facts about some of our rivers’ historical states.
For example, in 1826 there was a logjam on the Siuslaw River that was over a mile long and extended across the entire valley, immovable, creating a braided, complex river that encompassed the entire valley floor, instead of the channelized trough running through cow pasture we have today. At the time, the Siuslaw was one of the most productive salmon watersheds in the state, second only to the Columbia.
Or our Willamette River (which every endangered McKenzie River Spring Chinook needs to swim up from Willamette Falls) was at one time twisted and braided across wetlands, sloughs, islands and logjams two to three miles wide, instead of the brown stripe running from Eugene to Oregon City. In the 1870s, the Army Corps of Engineers removed 10,000 snags from the Willamette and cut down thousands of riverbank trees.
This book has excellent information about the natural history of our watersheds and its inhabitants and is a must-read for river supporters.
An excerpt: Simplified rivers look recovered after a few years. In fact, biologists don’t know how long it takes for severely degraded waterways to recuperate because they have never seen one recover on it own. Channelized streams are almost completely severed from their watersheds. Riprapped banks and levees usually stop rivers from reinhabiting their old flood plains and side channels. Richly textured channels with meanders, pools, riffles and logjams are replaced by straight runs of riffling water. The riparian areas may be narrowed to thin lines of alders and cottonwoods that no longer have the ability to buffer a stream from events in the watershed, and that contribute little to the stream. Cobbled rivers once rich with young salmon, trout, sculpins, beavers, mergansers, osprey, and eagles are turned into simple canals with greatly diminished life.
Rapp’s book offers guidelines to restoring our watersheds, but the most salient point she makes is that we need to manage people, not rivers or salmon. As University of Washington Jim Karr said in the book, “Northwest rivers have been making salmon for millennia. We need to manage people so natural systems can make salmon as they’ve done for a long time.”
According to Rapp, we need to save the best places first, as the truly degraded watersheds could take up to 100 years to recover. Lucky for us, in Oregon we have so much potential to save the last best places.
But in order to save the last best places, we’ll need something to sustain and inspire us. Something that will allow you to keep fighting against the currents of entrenched beliefs, political cowardice, and defeat. Luckily, we have David James Duncan. I’ve excerpted a few paragraphs from My Story as Told by Water below to illustrate the kind of Quixotic hope we’ll need to see wild fisheries restored in the next generation.
Life itself sometimes hangs by a thread made of nothing but the spirit in which we see. And with life itself at stake, I grew suspicious of my eyes’ many easy, dark conclusions. Even the most warranted pessimism began to feel unwarranted. I began to see hope, however feeble its apparent foundation, bespeaks allegiance to every unlikely beauty that remains intact on Earth.
I believe every life-loving human on Earth carries a far-from-agnostic obligation to remain primitive enough, and reverent enough, to stand up and say to any political power or poll or public: Trees and mountains are holy. Rain and rivers are holy. Salmon are holy. For this reason alone I will fight with all my might to keep them alive. This is not an argument, not a number, not a polled opinion. It’s naked native belief.
Appearances are deceiving: the Columbia and her salmon are as ancient and God-given as the mountains and the seas. Whereas the average dam’s lifespan is about the same as yours and mine. As I slide toward my half-century mark and feel the currents of time lapping at my knees, my memory, my libido, I sure feel removable as hell. Welcome to the club, dams!
Read both, and get ready.