the film
Commentaries and editorials

Heeding the Lessons
of Nature's Elegance

by Jeff Curtis
The Oregonian, December 20, 2005

Last week, lawyers representing federal, tribal and state governments along with those representing conservation, business and fishing groups descended on the federal courthouse in Portland yet again to ask a federal judge to help strike a balance between the needs of people and salmon in the Columbia-Snake River Basin.

The fight within this France-sized area that once boasted the world's most prolific runs of chinook salmon is painfully familiar to most of us and has been for decades.

In the mid-1990s, a diverse group of scientists working under the auspices of the Northwest Power Planning Council was asked to assess the problem. Their report, "Return to the River," was radical in the stark simplicity of its premise: A river will work better for salmon, they said in 1996, when allowed to function again as a river.

A region gasped.

The report documented how we had transformed the Columbia from a river into a machine: a hydropower-producing, barge-accommodating, development-enabling, desert-irrigating marvel of engineering and technological genius. The river became part of the distant history of the machine. The problem was and is: so did its salmon. By the mid-1990s, many populations of the former river's salmon and steelhead had dwindled, only to resurface as listings under the Endangered Species Act.

Crises like the one we found ourselves in with salmon following the dam-building era on the Columbia and Snake are where technology meets human arrogance. We engineered our way into the salmon crisis, so why not engineer our way out?

Because it doesn't work.

Trucks and barges transported fish around the dams, hatcheries were built to replace lost spawning and rearing areas, elaborate plumbing was installed to suck baby fish out of the lakes behind the dams and shoot them out below. Decades and billions of dollars later, the salmon continue to decline. Our arrogance has been in thinking our engineering could dominate the simple elegance of the river.

"Return to the River" advanced the radical if obvious notion that the Columbia River is, in fact, a river, and that the solution to the decline in salmon, is to return it to a more natural state, to a vision of the Columbia River as an ecosystem rather than an economic engine. It suggests that compromise between human and natural economies is not only possible but necessary, and that the notion that we could have it all -- abundant salmon, cheap hydroelectricity and the power to transform the desert -- must give way because nature has the final say over human hubris.

The question we should ask ourselves a decade after "Return to the River" is this: Have we learned anything in 10 years? The good news is that, yes, we have. On the Kennebec River in Maine, the removal of a dam has led to the return of striped bass and Atlantic salmon. Here in the Northwest we are close to removing the major dams on the Elwha River, as well as smaller dams on the Sandy and Rogue rivers.

The bad news is that we have not learned enough. The Columbia and Snake rivers of 2005 do not look markedly different than they did in 1990. All the dams remain in place, fish bypass and transportation remain the norm for getting salmon to and from the ocean, and most of the salmon still return to hatcheries.

The major lesson of "Return to the River" is that the river had it right the first time, and the more it is allowed to return to that reality, the more salmon, in their own elegant simplicity, will follow.

All of us involved in this epic fight about bringing back the salmon should bear these lessons in mind.

Jeff Curtis is Pacific salmon director for Trout Unlimited in Portland.
Heeding the Lessons of Nature's Elegance
The Oregonian, December 20, 2005

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