Salmon and the Northwest
There is not much of it left. Of untouched salmon habitat there is almost none. Although salmon once occupied almost every ocean-seeking stream in the Pacific Northwest, the map where salmon go has been shrinking for over a hundred years, sometimes gradually as human forces slowly worsened the habitat, sometimes suddenly when millions of acres of habitat were blocked by dams.
Now to see the headwater-to-the-sea habitat where the salmon thrive in abundance, one must go to Alaska. Here in the Lower Forty-eight, and in much of western Canada, it has almost vanished. A century and a half of logging, farming, ranching, mining, damming, road building, and urbanizing activity has taken its toll. Much that civilization demands for its sustenance has had a consequence in the fate of the salmon.
The Aboriginal Habitat
Only in a handful of small pockets, miniature and isolated ecosystems, can there still be found habitat as it once was. On the Oregon coast, just south of the town of Yachats, is a little untouched watershed, barely eight miles from the headwaters to the ocean. Cummins Creek winds through a narrow, steep-sided valley. There, free from the ax and chainsaw, and now protected under the Wilderness Act, trees many feet thick rise to the sky, almost blocking out the sun. Over years, as trees have died, some have fallen into the creek. Although the creek is small and shallow in many places, even in the low water of summer it is a struggle to walk the streambed. Tree trunks are everywhere in the creek, creating dams over which the water must plunge, digging out pools that could soak a person up to the neck. Gravel bars have built up where the creek slows. The fallen trees push the creek from bank to bank, undercutting, and causing more trees, rootwads and all, to end up in the creek bed. All this adds up to stream “complexity,” a diverse set of stream conditions that create the conditions needed for healthy salmon.
In other streams, where the trees have not been allowed to mature and die and end up in the creek, what we see is a far more simplified stream. What most of us now think of as a pristine natural stream, bubbling along unimpeded to the sea, is not what the pioneers saw in many of the Northwest watersheds. Instead, west of the Cascades, they found creeks so choked with trees that in places they could not reach the water. On the larger rivers, log jams were common barriers to navigation, which had to be blown up or painstakingly picked apart by men who risked their lives not knowing when the jam would give way. Whether for aesthetics or practicalities, man in the American West has systematically rid both large and small streams of the logs, boulders, and other “debris” that shape the stream and give life to salmon.
Abundant beaver built dams on the smaller streams. The ponds behind the dams gave refuge to juvenile salmon from the high currents of winter floods and the warm waters of summer droughts. Beaver, trapped and driven from much of their previous range, once were as ubiquitous in the Northwest as salmon. The simplified stream channels which have such dire consequences for salmon are in no small part due to the absence of beaver.
Before the effects of man, creeks and streams and rivers moved across their floodplains, changing course as high water cut new channels and dammed up old ones. Floods spread out into multiple channels, where the over-wintering juvenile salmon could find refuge from the fast water. In summer, these streams, slowed and directed by logs and boulders near the banks, dug deep channels, where the water stayed cool throughout the hot days.
It was into these conditions that the salmon evolved. They are a product of this particular landscape. The salmon were home throughout the Columbia River and Pacific Coast states, from the coastal rain forests to the high deserts, but the streams in which they began and ended their lives all shared these attributes. Vegetation along stream banks provided shade and engineered the variety that salmon need during the freshwater phases of their life cycle. The rivers “interacted” with their flood plains by changing channels as flows increased and decreased. Small spawning streams were narrow, deep, and cool, with riffles, pools and gravel bars. In the arid areas east of the Cascades, where fewer firs and pines grow, willows, aspens, locusts, and cottonwoods along the banks provided the stream complexity.
The few places where untouched salmon habitat can be found today are small and precious. In our imagination we expand these places to an entire aboriginal landscape as a conceptual salmon Eden. Anecdotal pioneer stories of salmon, body-to-body across an entire stream channel, are universalized to every Pacific Northwest stream. We imagine the aboriginal landscape as uniformly pure, unsullied and unchanging through time. Even without humankind’s intrusion in the salmon’s life zone, however, change is the one constant. In fact, salmon cannot live without change. Spawning gravels wash downstream in floods and can only be replenished by new landslides, which occur most frequently when slopes are bare after fires like those that once swept through the fir forests west of the Cascades every few centuries. After fires, salmon suffer initially as the sediment fills the interstices in the gravels, suffocating the eggs, and silt and mud fill the deep holes in the streambeds where cooler summer waters are present. With time, the winter rains push these fine sediments down the river to the ocean, scouring the gravels and digging again the deep holes behind a rock or a tree trunk brought down by the slide. The watershed heals itself, slowly renewing the tree cover, slowing the progress of sediment into the stream. As the smaller sediments wash away, the gravels first become home to the species, such as coho, able to make use of a stream without strong riffles and deep pools. Over time, as the stream becomes more complex, other salmon species like steelhead come in to use more of this diverse habitat.
Even without man, natural change was so constant that no more than a third of the zone west of the Coast Range, for example, was likely to have been “prime” salmon habitat at any one time. The rest of the landscape was still recovering from a major disturbance or in need of disturbance in order to begin anew the conditions right for salmon. Not every stream teemed with fish, only those that were at the right stage between major devastating events. A third or more of all streams may have had no salmon at all. But there were enough streams with abundant runs of salmon to give early European immigrants the impression that the fish resource was unending.
Different species and runs of salmon take advantage of the different conditions presented by the Northwest’s rivers. Almost all salmon spawn in fall to early winter and hatch out in winter or spring. Some salmon species, such as chum and pinks, spawn in the estuary and the low reaches of creeks close to salt water and rear there for a short time as juveniles before going to sea. Most other salmon make a long upstream journey to reach spawning gravel, timing their run to when there will likely be water in the stream where they will lay and fertilize their eggs. Salmon moving upstream to spawn cannot move into a creek that has low flows or high temperatures during the summer and early fall. Other streams, like the Willamette River at Oregon City, have cascades or waterfalls that only during the spring have flow enough for salmon to pass. Others lack enough cool summer pools to hold spring-migrating fish until fall spawning and are populated only with fall and winter run fish.
The spring chinook moves into the rivers during the high spring and early summer flows. Not spawning until fall, and often ascending into high reaches of the watershed, it has high fat reserves to give it stamina. Having swum through thousands of miles of ocean and struggled upstream in fresh water for sometimes hundreds of miles, this most driven of animals reaches the river of its birth. Then it stops, and waits. It finds a deep hole or a spring-fed pool in the stream where cool water remains throughout the heat of summer. Against the slight current in these holes, the salmon swims slowly in place. For months at a time, the fish is still, rarely moving more than a few feet from this chosen place, conserving energy. One can see them crowded together in these holes, their dark gray backs parallel to the current, like a flight of zeppelins, until a disturbance, a shadow, spooks them into dispersal, only to return within minutes one-by-one to their vigil.
During this time, their bodies are changing, from trophy athletes to reproductive engines. They shun even the slim sustenance these small creeks afford fish this large. Their flesh decays, their energy slowly consumed to produce eggs in females and fighting equipment in males for the mating competition to come. An adult female salmon may have over 20% of her body mass taken up by eggs by the time she spawns.
Anadromy, ascending rivers from the sea for breeding, is salmon’s great adaptive tool. It is achieved through very complex physiological changes to keep internal electrolytic balance as the fish moves from freshwater with a salt content less than its own tissues to the ocean with a salt content that is greater, and then back again. By laying eggs in freshwater and maturing at sea, salmon take advantage of the best that both habitats offer. The secure gravels of freshwater allow salmon to reproduce with fewer, but larger, eggs that are more likely to survive.
Some salmon species may spend more than a year maturing in fresh water before venturing to the ocean. There, the salmon’s diet radically changes from the small insects and other invertebrates of the river to a predator’s diet of smaller fish. This access to an abundant food supply at a time when salmon are mature enough to handle larger prey has a profound effect. A salmon which in fresh water may have taken a year to grow to six inches in length and barely over an ounce in weight will grow rapidly once it reaches the ocean in the spring. After the first summer, it will likely be a fifteen inch fish.
Salmon species take advantage of the wide range of ocean habitats, just as the different varieties of salmon take advantage of almost all the riverine habitat at one time or another. Some salmon roam over thousands of miles of ocean, leaving the Columbia River and ranging to the Gulf of Alaska and out to the fringe of the Aleutians before beginning the journey back to the streams of their birth. Others, such as Oregon coastal coho, spend much of their adult lives within a few hundred miles of the stream from which they entered the ocean.
A creature that swims a thousand miles upstream to reproduce and then die says much about the drive to survive and create progeny. To people it seems like a waste for an animal to struggle so much to reproduce, only to meet death soon afterwards. Why would nature not have given this animal just a little more muscle mass, or a little more stamina, so that it could survive spawning and follow the downstream current back to the ocean?
Steelhead, alone among the big West Coast salmon, can return to the ocean. Although most steelhead die after spawning, some return to spawn several times. Battered and worn out after the trip upriver, a steelhead can still return to the sea, restore its health and return to the stream in following years to lay and fertilize its eggs.
However, dying after spawning allows salmonids to take advantage of all their body mass to get to the spawning grounds and leave large numbers of healthy fertilized eggs and, consequently, produce greater numbers of juveniles and eventually adults. They need not hold anything in reserve for a return trip to salt water. Dying after spawning also allows the spawned-out salmon to play a critical role in the ecosystem. The small creeks and streams where the salmon spawn are often devoid of nutrients. In a dramatic example of the circle of life, young salmon feed directly on the carcasses as well as on the other organisms that find food in the dead adults. Vegetation along salmon streams also depends on dead salmon for vital nutrients. This role of spawned-out salmon is now believed to be so important, in fact, that carcasses from salmon that have been spawned in the hatchery are placed in some streams where lack of nutrients inhibits the growth of the emerging wild salmon fry.
Most of the habitat available in the Pacific Northwest and not closed off by dams has been degraded in slow increments. A valley farmer cannot efficiently use his bottom land due to the stream meandering through it. He fills in the curves and pushes the channel against one hillside, thereby speeding the current and eliminating the alcoves young salmon and steelhead need to survive winter streamflows. A culvert on a logging road plugs up with debris in a heavy rain, sending a flood of water over the road, starting a slope failure and a debris avalanche that fills the river with silt. A homeowner, realizing a dream of living next to a river, cuts the brush and trees obscuring his view and plants a lawn down to the water’s edge. A potato farmer, wanting to take advantage of the sandy soils and intense sun of the Snake River plain, withdraws the equivalent of six feet of rain from the river to put on his acreage each summer.
No single action like these was enough to cause noticeable harm to the salmon. Each new habitat alteration seemed small at the time compared to the abundant numbers of fish. However, incremental damage has been a calamity for salmon habitat. These disturbances, collectively on a much wider scale than provided by nature, have left little habitat that is ideal for salmon. It is tempting to cast blame, as many do, on corporate greed and a purposeful lack of concern for the environment. But most of the damage was not done willfully. Even the Columbia River dams, each one dooming more salmon than any other cause, were built with the idea that all the losses could be replenished in hatcheries.
The Spirit of the Salmon
When our distant ancestors stopped investing objects and animals with spiritual value, they began to see themselves as detached from nature. No longer bound up in a web of spiritual relationships with the natural world, they were then free to see in terms of cause and effect, to view the world “objectively.” They began to think of the natural world as there to serve humankind’s ends rather than humans serving the numinous purposes of the natural world. They believed that the quality of human life could be influenced by human action and was not solely at the caprice of the gods.
This detachment from nature is so intricately interwoven with our culture that it is difficult to find terms to describe natural phenomena that do not encompass our objectification of the natural world. The study of nature, which for many people originates in a sense of the contribution that nature makes to a person’s sense of place in the world, marches quickly away from these personal values as soon as one delves very deeply into the disciplines. Latin taxonomy and inter-relationships according to objective laws leave no room for notions of how nature affects our subjective experience.
Yet despite this rational creation of an objective world, we have still not lost our attachment to the earth. Our lives reflect the tension – often starkly felt – between our modern rationality and our primitive relationship with the natural world. We go out into nature to seek spiritual renewal. Although man is one of the most gregarious of animals, we harbor a belief that cities are unnatural and unhealthy. We surround ourselves with plants and flowers, both indoors and out, as much as we do with human art. We send our children to summer camp, in the belief that encountering nature will prepare them better for the rigors of adulthood. We bring animals into the household, even though many of them – fish, birds, hamsters, snakes – interact very little with their human keepers. In the dark of winter, we cut down a tree and bring it inside the house and decorate it with lights.
We are, after all, animals ourselves. We too experience the rhythms of life, and we sense when we have gotten out of balance with our natural selves. We feel we are more whole when we can retreat to the quiet of nature as well as exercise our physical selves. It is not possible to describe rationally the attachment to the earth that we feel, but in many people’s lives the experience of nature is as important, if not more, as the pleasures of civilization.
For people in the Pacific Northwest, this connection with nature seems particularly important. While every region and every state has its scenic beauties, people of the Pacific Northwest take environmental quality more seriously than people almost anywhere else in the country. Although most of the people of the region live in cities, the opportunity for recreation outside the cities is highly valued. If there is any litmus test for most Northwest politicians, it is in being in favor of environmental quality.
The Pacific Northwest does not provide the greatest of scenic spectaculars. The coast is beautiful but not as stunning as Big Sur or Point Reyes in California. The mountains are high, but only Mt. Rainier rivals the Alaskan high peaks or the Sierra Nevada in grandeur. Mt. Hood is the highest point in Oregon and complements the Portland skyline, but every other western state has a taller peak. The region’s deserts are small and not very dramatic. What may be attractive here is the balance that can be experienced: among mountains, deserts, seashores, and green agricultural valleys. Balance between work and recreation. Balance among the seasons. Balance between the civilization of Portland and Seattle and the nature that abounds outside the urban areas.
The salmon are emblematic of the role of natural forces in the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. To have this spectacular wild creature in our midst means we can maintain the connection to the wild that is within us. Take salmon away, and Pacific Northwesterners lose claim to being able to live within a natural environment. To lose the salmon is to confess that civilization is all-encompassing, that the only nature that can survive is that which is complementary to man’s economic impulses, that humankind’s connection to the earth must necessarily be sacrificed to the rationality of making maximum use of society’s tangible assets, including those provided by nature.
It is the sense people have of the spirit of the salmon that has given them importance today well beyond their commercial and culinary attributes. Here is an animal which can only be regarded as beautiful in human terms. It has the sleek clean lines of a modern sculpture and is the color of polished silver. Its endurance is legendary. It roams the far oceans. It will swim upstream sometimes for over a thousand miles, leaping cascades and waterfalls, to reach the place where it was born. It will fight for a mate and engage in a ritualistic courtship. To reproduce, it will brutalize its physical self and then make the ultimate sacrifice, its flesh providing nourishment for the continuation of the circle of life. Courage, steadfastness, beauty, strength, sacrifice – these are all human ideals. It is no accident that we identify with these qualities.
Is it folly to expect that the wild salmon, any more than the grizzly bear and the cougar, can co-exist with an expanding urban populace? It has been said that there are more deer in America than when the Pilgrims landed, because rural homesteads and large-lot suburbs create good habitat and provide freedom from predators. But are the salmon compatible with human development?
The evidence is conflicting. Salmon are one of the most resilient and adaptable of creatures. Despite their instinct to return to their natal stream to spawn, they have enough inclination to stray that they manage to repopulate areas after natural (and even human-induced) disasters have wiped out all habitat for a period of time. After the forty or so Missoula floods of the Pleistocene, that periodically sent walls of water up to a thousand feet high down the Columbia River Gorge, the salmon somehow recolonized the entire reformed Columbia River basin in 10,000 years, an evolutionary blink of an eye. After Mount St. Helens sent a torrent of hot mud down the Toutle River and into the Cowlitz in 1980, salmon and steelhead quickly came back to spawn. The Pacific Northwest is the most geologically active region in the contiguous United States. The surface of the land is some of the newest on earth, yet the salmon have been able to adapt and survive and occupy almost all the available habitat.
What we do not know is twofold: how much habitat degradation salmon can take and still survive through generations and what it takes to restore the habitat that has been damaged (beyond removing all works of man and not returning for a century or two). We have never been successful in restoring self-sustaining runs of salmon to a watershed from which they were extirpated. It is not known how much of this difficulty is due to our never having restored a damaged watershed sufficiently to allow salmon to return, as against the unique genetic characteristics of the stocks of salmon in each watershed that cannot be replaced.
Where dams blocked access to spawning habitat, it was originally thought that fish ladders for adults migrating upstream would be enough to ensure that salmon could get to the habitat that was left. The fish and wildlife management agencies signed off on the dams with the expectation that the effects of the dams would be mitigated by the construction of fish ladders and hatcheries, resulting in continued abundant salmon for harvest. Paralleling the string of dams on rivers around the Northwest are now dozens of salmon hatcheries that pour smolts into the rivers each year.
It is now clear that none of the technological fixes, starting with providing passage for adults moving upstream and including hatcheries, has been completely successful in maintaining the salmon runs. In the Columbia, on average, only about a million salmon, 80% of them hatchery fish, return to the Columbia each year, less than 10% of historic abundance. Three quarters of the original 200 Columbia River natural salmon stocks are either extinct or in decline. Only three stocks (Hanford Reach fall chinook, Lewis River fall chinook, and Wenatchee Lake sockeye) are currently anywhere near their historic abundance.
Although in some areas hatcheries have successfully produced abundant fish for harvest, particularly in good ocean conditions, this accomplishment has come with a price. Hatcheries are successful only with heavy doses of antibiotics and other drugs and slow manipulation of genetics over generations to breed in characteristics of fish that survive well as juveniles in a crowded captive environment. These are not necessarily the attributes that contribute to the long-term resilience of fish that must migrate downstream, survive in the ocean and then make their way over dams back to the hatchery. Despite the occasional successes of the massive hatchery program, hatcheries have been unable to replace the numbers of salmon lost to dams and habitat destruction. The truly successful artificial production programs have been in Canada, Chile, and Norway, where salmon are raised in pens through their whole life cycle and harvested directly without ever having been released in the wild. These create other environmental problems, however, from pollution and escape of farmed fish into the wild.
Hatcheries are under attack. Even if the hatchery program worked to produce abundant salmon, wild fish have many advocates. Hatcheries find they need infusions of wild fish to ensure against genetic inbreeding. Recreational fishers believe that wild fish provide a better fight when hooked. Gourmets claim wild fish have better texture and flavor. Hatchery fish are believed to compete for food with wild fish in the stream and estuary and can infect other fish with hatchery bred diseases. Not all hatchery salmon are harvested or return to the hatchery; some stray into the rivers and spawn with wild fish, raising concerns about genetic contamination of the wild fish, particularly when the hatchery fish originate from stocks of a faraway river basin.
But the real strength of public support for conservation of wild stocks comes from the public’s concern for conservation of wildness. An adult salmon reared in a concrete holding tank before going to sea is just not the same as a salmon that was born in gravel and spent its early life struggling to survive in a flowing stream. The wildness of the stream bred salmon sets it apart. People’s feelings of connection with nature have become focused on wild salmon and the spirit of creation that they embody.
At the time the hatchery programs were conceived in the 1950s and 1960s, we as a people shared a belief that technology would deliver answers that were superior to nature. Physicians touted infant formula as superior nutrition to mothers’ breast milk. We believed that synthetic fibers would soon produce better clothing than the old options of cotton, wool, and silk. Just as we could produce better fruit, vegetables, and livestock, technology surely could produce a better salmon than the ones that had to depend on nature for survival.
Today, we comprehend more of the complex balance of natural processes and our own role in nature. We understand how difficult it is to produce a product, live or synthetic, that duplicates, let alone is superior, to the qualities that have developed through eons of evolutionary change. Our irrational side, too, is at work, making connection with the wild creature that has such a remarkable life history. We appreciate the value of wildness and we seek to preserve it.
The Columbia River
In the Columbia Basin, the natural salmon ecosystem has been so radically altered by the dams that scientists cannot agree on the root causes of the salmon’s decline. Is it problems in the reservoirs: too much time to be eaten by predators, or not enough food, or too little flow to get them to the ocean in time? Is it problems in passing the dams? Do the fish bypass systems cause more problems than they solve? Does barging juvenile salmon downstream cause too much stress to the fish? Do they lose the imprinting of the route home by being carried downstream? Or have the dams, with their unnatural flow regimes and capturing of nutrients and sediments, altered even the condition of the estuary and the ocean at the river mouth to the point where fish are vulnerable to starvation and predators?
These are difficult questions to answer, because there are so many variables to analyze in an ecosystem as complicated as the Columbia River. It is difficult to follow a six-inch fish in the river and not at all in the ocean because of the limitations of even state-of-the-art electronic tracking. It is almost impossible to see what is causing a young salmon to die.
Some scientists postulate that the Columbia River problems are so intractable that only the breaching of some dams can save the salmon. Does the Pacific Northwest love the salmon so much that it would unbuild some of the prized Columbia River hydropower system? While it may seem doubtful that the political will would be present for such a radical step, this option continues to be discussed as the ultimate solution if the Columbia River salmon are to be rescued.
Things Look Different in the Watersheds
On the ocean coasts of the Pacific Northwest, salmon runs have declined almost as much as on the Columbia. Here it is not dams that have decimated the salmon runs but a combination of over-harvest of adult fish and the destruction of freshwater habitat.
One example is the coho salmon of the Oregon coast. Coho hatch in the winter and then spend over a year in fresh water, using side channels, beaver ponds, and flooded fields for refuge from the high water. During summer drought, they look for the coolest water in the stream, often in the holes below obstructions in the mainstem of the river, where a spring might support a colony of young salmon. In their second spring they migrate to the ocean. In their second fall at sea, coho return to their natal stream, searching for clean gravel in low gradient creeks. Coho’s tendency to migrate in shallow ocean water near shore makes them particularly easy to catch in hook-and-line ocean fisheries. For decades, coho were the staple of the charter boat and commercial fishery operating out of Oregon coastal ports.
Because juvenile coho stay in freshwater so long and use so much of the available habitat, they are vulnerable to any degree of habitat destruction taking place in the watershed. Unless the stream has enough complexity to provide calm water refuges from high flows, a winter flood will blast them out to sea and a premature death. Sedimentation that fills in the deep holes will make it harder for the fish to find cool water in the hot summer. Removal of bank vegetation will cut off at the source the beginning of the food chain on which the salmon depend.
The salmon recovery efforts that are taking place in the Northwest are based on the perception that everything that happens in a watershed affects the salmon. Besides the efforts to improve passage around dams, the emphasis is on restoration of habitat conditions, including limited disturbances, that would allow the salmon to thrive once again. This is not a simple task, for the conditions that caused the decline of the salmon are complex and not always well understood. More significantly, human factors must often be overcome before the conditions in the watershed can begin to be addressed.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, citizens in a few areas tired of the environmental conflict that had shattered their communities for the last decade. The battles over federal forest policy that reached an apex with the lawsuits over protection of the northern spotted owl separated neighbor from neighbor all over the rural Northwest.
Lack of stream structure, lack of shade, wasteful water withdrawal, silt from logging roads, contamination from farm chemicals or livestock, road culverts which block salmon’s access to spawning streams, livestock in the streams, erosion from gravel pits, erosion from agriculture lands, etc., all cause conditions inhospitable to salmon.
No one of these problems usually ruins a salmon stream by itself, but together they make most watersheds far less hospitable to salmon than they could be. No state-run program could identify all these problems, stream mile by stream mile, let alone organize the effort to address each one. That is the strength of the watershed-based efforts, which address the factors which limit salmon production in the watershed.
Many rural landowners in the West are suspicious of any efforts made on behalf of the environment. They do not like government personnel or “do-gooders” on their land, scrutinizing and potentially criticizing their operations. It is the genius of the watershed restoration effort that it is local people, who have witnessed the decline of the species, talking to local people that brings about cooperation.
The Northwest salmon recovery effort relies heavily on these local watershed restoration efforts. There is scientific dispute as to how much these efforts can contribute to salmon recovery, particularly while much logging, farming and land development goes on as before. However, the most significant positive result for salmon from these local efforts may be the development of community ownership of their salmon resource. Local community members have decided that salmon are important to them, and they are willing to work and sacrifice for salmon preservation and restoration. The local community will exert peer pressure on landowners who do not take care of habitat. If it turns out that the present effort does not bring about salmon recovery, the local people will look for other solutions that will. Providing technical and financial assistance to local efforts and then getting out of the way has been more productive than the old methods of imposing a new regulatory scheme on hostile local people.
It is easy to be pessimistic about the future of Pacific Northwest salmon. Decimated by dams and injured habitat, the once resilient wild salmon face decline and even extinction in many areas. The mild climate and open spaces of the Pacific Northwest, as well as its reputation for community spirit, are attracting population at a faster rate than all but a few areas of the United States.
Human beings over centuries have tended to prefer the same habitat as the salmon. The bottoms of valleys along the rivers and streams were the first areas settled and are still preferred areas for agriculture and urban development. The strategies used for preservation of other species like the spotted owl, the wolf, and the grizzly bear – setting aside tracts of undeveloped land remote from most human settlement – will not work to preserve the salmon. The destruction of the salmon is taking place literally right in Northwesterners’ backyards.
The engine of Pacific Northwest economic development – the Columbia River hydropower system – is at the heart of the most difficult salmon problem. This prized engineering masterpiece has come at the expense of once magnificent salmon runs that nourished generations of aboriginal settlers and then enriched the Europeans who succeeded them. On top of all that Indians have sacrificed, the loss to their culture from the death of the salmon is incalculable. That this animal which ranged the far oceans and then came a thousand miles upstream to reproduce now teeters on the brink of extinction is an almost unthinkable injury to the spirit of both Indians and non-Indians alike.
The largest question is whether the human populace can accept the limitations on incremental damage to habitat, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time compared to the economic benefits. When local people value salmon as a community asset, there is reason for optimism that they will make the right choices.
Salmon have been as much a part of the Pacific Northwest as the tall, dense forests and snow-capped volcanoes. The people of the Northwest value the connection to nature that life here can afford them, including the contact still with wildness – untouched wilderness, rivers foaming with rapids, and almost all the wildlife species that were here when the Europeans arrived. The salmon is at the heart of this Pacific Northwest wild heritage. If we let the wild salmon slide into extinction, something of the unique spiritual quality of this landscape will go with them.
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