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Along for the Ride

by Sherry Devlin
Missoulian - January 18, 2003

Environmental groups and federal agencies are hopping aboard Lewis and Clark bicentennial in an effort to get their messages across

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- "The Lewis and Clark bicentennial floats a lot of different boats."

Jon Campbell had to shout to be heard, so chaotic was the University of Virginia ballroom where he was assigned a few square feet of space to show off the handiwork of the U.S. Geological Survey.

A couple of booths away, the U.S. Forest Service was giving away packets of prairie star seeds and Smokey Bear lapel pins. In the next room, the Army Corps of Engineers had a government retiree on duty, dressed as Pvt. John Thompson, a surveyor who enlisted in the U.S. Army so he could accompany captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey to parts unknown.

Campbell was doing his best to keep visitors' attention on his display of historic and modern maps. "We claim to be the federal agency that does what Lewis and Clark did," he said. "We're still out there, noting the soil conditions, vegetation, stream flows and animal species. They made maps; we make maps. We just use different technologies."

Still, why did the Geological Survey come to Charlottesville for the opening of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial? "Our task is to make the science that the USGS does better known," Campbell said. "This commemoration has the attention of a lot of people, many of whom we think would be receptive to our message."

On that count, the USGS has considerable company.

Dozens and dozens of federal agencies, environmental groups, state tourism offices, Indian tribes, book publishers and Lewis-and-Clark entrepreneurs intend to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark as the bicentennial party marches across the United States over the next 3 1/2 years.

This week they came to Virginia, where on Saturday at Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop home the commemoration will officially begin.

"The bicentennial is an opportunity to connect the public to the wild species and places the expedition encountered along the trail," said LeeAnne Beres, who spent much of Friday "swimming" down UVa hallways with a considerably larger-than-life-size salmon puppet.

"The salmon fed to Lewis and Clark by the Nez Perce Indians saved them from starvation when they emerged from the Bitterroot Mountains in 1805," she said. "They didn't much care for it, of course. And it made them sick because they were so malnourished. But the salmon and the Indians clearly saved the expedition."

Two hundred years later, modern-day Lewises and Clarks would find no wild salmon on many streams west of the Bitterroot Divide, said Beres, the associate director of Save Our Wild Salmon in Seattle. "And I think, when people have an opportunity to learn about these places, they'll want to preserve them."

So Beres and a salmon-costumed co-worker intend to migrate from one bicentennial event to the next between now and Sept. 23, 2006, when the commemoration will close with a fireworks-produced bang in St. Louis.

They'll likely see a lot of familiar faces among the exhibitors.

"Oh yeah, we'll be at them all," said David Ellenberger, the Sierra Club's Lewis and Clark outreach coordinator.

"People want to do more than just acknowledge the 200th anniversary," said Eric Antebi, the group's national press secretary. "They want to do something. Conservation is a wonderful way to get people involved with the bicentennial."

Both the Sierra Club and American Rivers gave presentations to the 1,000 delegates at this week's inaugural bicentennial conference at the University of Virginia. "There can be no better way to honor the expedition or the explorer in each of us than to protect and restore the wild America of Lewis and Clark," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director.

Pope's group premiered a new film, narrated by actress Sissy Spacek and titled "Wild America: Protecting the Lands of Lewis and Clark." In April, the group will publish a dual conservation-and-travel guidebook, "Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail."

"We want people to see these beautiful places," said Ellenberger, who is based in Bozeman. "Then we want them to be inspired to work to conserve our remaining wilderness landscapes."

"The rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled are in failing health, and many of the species described in the journals may soon be gone forever," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. "Restoring portions of these rivers they traveled to a condition the explorers might recognize would be the finest possible tribute to the expedition."

A coalition of conservation groups led by American Rivers intends to sue the Bush administration later this month in hopes of restoring more natural river flows through six dams on the Missouri River. Dam operations have flat-lined the river's natural flow over the past 40 years, Wodder said.

"Without reforms to how these dams are operated, the Lewis and Clark bicentennial will arrive along a dying river," said Chad Smith, director of American Rivers' field office in Lincoln, Neb.

Both American Rivers and Save Our Wild Salmon want dams removed from the lower Snake River in Idaho. Salmon runs on the Snake River are less than 2 percent of what Lewis and Clark witnessed and noted in their journals, Beres said.

The 25 million people expected to visit pieces of the expedition's transcontinental trail could win the day for salmon and grizzly bears and free-flowing rivers, Ellenberger said. "Those kind of numbers get people's attention."

Thus, the presence of so many government agencies and special-interest groups in Charlottesville.

"This is an important event in our nation's history," said Steve Matz, who coordinates "heritage expeditions" for the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Salmon, Idaho. "The Lewis and Clark bicentennial is an opportunity for the Forest Service to help the public understand why it's important to preserve and protect the trail."

"Sure," he said, "there's something in it for us. This event helps focus on our management activities. Some of the most significant remaining intact pieces of the trail are on national forests, most notably Lemhi Pass and the Lolo Trail."

While the explorers' trail from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean near present-day Astoria, Ore., covered 3,700 miles, relatively few miles look today as they did in the early 1800s. The bicentennial, Matz said, is a chance for the Forest Service to show off those wild places "although carefully, so they aren't loved to death."

So the more Smokey Bear pins he can attach to the lapels of Lewis and Clark buffs, the better, Matz said. "And how about a pencil and an eraser for your kids? I've got a million of them."

Sherry Devlin
Along for the Ride
Missoulian, January 18, 2003

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