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Conservationists Hitch Ride with Lewis, Clark

by Michelle Cole
The Oregonian, September 16, 2003

Nobody is saying that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would have sided with salmon advocates calling for the removal of four Snake River dams. But as the nation commemorates the bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery, conservationists are linking the 19th-century heroes to presentmodern-day campaigns aimed at protecting wildlife, wild rivers and wild lands.

The Oregon Natural Resources Council and Sierra Club are among them. They are counting on Lewis and Clark to help protect 166,000 acres on Mount Hood and in the Columbia River Gorge just the way the explorers found it: wilderness not carved by roads or chain saws.

"The Lewis and Clark bicentennial gives us an opportunity to recognize these roadless forests for what they are: icons of history and opportunities for future exploration," says Alex Brown, grassroots coordinator for the Portland-based ONRC resources council.

Such campaigns have occur with a certain historic irony. Lewis and Clark - dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to inventory the vast resources of the Northwest for possible future exploitation - were not exactly on a white-water adventure vacation.

Returning to Charlottesville, Va., in December 1806, Lewis was welcomed with a banquet and a speech praising the discovery of "unviolated forests." His response: "I trust that the discoveries we have made will not long remain unimproved."

Yet, as Americans retrace Lewis and Clark's footsteps in the next few years, conservation groups nationwide see this as a their chance to appeal to a wider audience - an audience whose hearts and imaginations have already been captured by the historic 8,000-mile round trip across a rugged landscape.

"For the most part, we are talking to the public about a lot of the same conservation issues that we've been talking about," says Mary Kiesau, coordinator of the Sierra Club's "Lewis and Clark Wild America" campaign.

The difference, Kiesau says, "is that some people who may not normally listen to the Sierra Club or to Native American tribes might really be into history and really like Lewis and Clark."

Two of the nation's most prominent Lewis and Clark historians say they have no problem with conservationists trying to get juice out of the 200th anniversary of the expedition. But both cautioned against taking Lewis and Clark too far out of their historical context.

"They give very dramatic and vivid accounts of what the rivers were like back then. . . . But saying they were conservationists projects too much of the present on them," says historian Dayton Duncan. He has chronicled the expedition in books as well as in a documentary co-produced with Ken Burns, "Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery."

In the early 19th century, on the cusp of the Romantic era, nature was still viewed as a force to be tamed. Forests supplied building materials to build and wood to be burnedburn for energy. Rivers were superhighways facilitating trade.

Joe Mussulman, a retired University of Montana professor who today produces a popular Lewis and Clark Web site (, says if they could come back today, it's quite possible that the explorers would stand in awe of the ocean-going barges traveling the Columbia River - thanks to the dams. Sierra Club takes to idea
Still, it was a history buff who several years ago first brought the idea of a Lewis and Clark conservation campaign to the Sierra Club.

"Americans have very little sense of their own history but they're very good at commemorating events. I began to realize that the nation would be commemorating the Lewis and Clark bicentennial at a time we'd also be facing profoundly important decisions about the future of the Columbia River," says Dr. John Osborn, a Sierra Club volunteer and physician at the Veterans Hospital in Spokane.

The Sierra Club launched its "Lewis and Clark Wild America" campaign in late 1998 and plans to continue it at least through 2006. So far, Sierra campaign coordinator Kiesau says the club has spent $1 million a year on a campaign that now covers nine states, including Oregon and Washington.

Ultimately, the Sierra Club's goal is to use the bicentennial to help pass environmental legislation.

"In every state we're working in, we have a place or package of lands we feel are in permanent need of protection, and we're starting to talk with congressional members in each state about these places," she Kiesau says.

First, though, conservationists want to talk directly to the public.

They've recruited well-known actors, including Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford, to narrate or appear in television documentaries and promotional videos.

They've also produced numerous Web sites, books and, with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a traveling museum exhibit that includes a replica of a keel boat used on the expedition. All of it is intended to educate Americans about the natural world Lewis and Clark encountered and to contrast that world with the one that exists today.

"Voyage of Recovery"
"When the traveling exhibit goes out to a community, we get literally thousands of schoolchildren going through," says Peter L. Kelley, vice president of communications for American Rivers, which in November 1998 became the official conservation partner of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council.

American Rivers has even gone so far as to trademark the title of its Lewis and Clark conservation campaign: "The Voyage of Recovery."

Smaller conservation groups have more modest ambitions.

In Idaho, it's difficult to win political support for wide swaths of newly protected wilderness, says Jonathan Oppenheimer, of the Idaho Conservation League. But he believes thinks the Lewis and Clark bicentennial will bring more attention to Idaho from outside the state.

"And we'll have an opportunity to appeal to some new constituencies," he says.

Last year, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge announced it would partner with the Sierra Club and the Trust for Public Land on a project titled "Lewis and Clark Landscapes." The goal: to protect 4,000 acres in the gorge from development.

A few months ago, an important 132-acre parcel was purchased by the U.S. Forest Service for preservation. The land, along Major Creek in Washington state, is thought to have been a Lewis and Clark campsite.

"You're standing there, and you're seeing, in many ways, the same things they saw, and it's very powerful," says Kevin Gorman, executive director of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. "Part of this commemoration is trying to protect what we have."he said.

Others hope that the commemoration also might help bring back what is lost.

In their journals, Lewis and Clark made repeated mention of the millions of salmon in the Columbia basin - runs so abundant that it seemed a man could walk across the backs of the fish to the other side of the river.

Links to dam breaching
Lewis and Clark primarily viewed salmon as a source of food and, if desperate, as fire fuel. But when the national bicentennial activities kicked off in January in Monticello, the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition sent along a 13-foot-long "Spirit Salmon" puppet.

"We wanted something that was big and eye-catching that would evoke the cultural and spiritual significance of salmon in the Northwest," says Vicki Paris, spokeswoman in the coalition's Portland office.

Rob Masonis, director of American Rivers' Northwest regional office, also attended the Monticello kickoff. He gave a speech advocating, among other things, restoration of 3,000 acres of wetlands in the lower Columbia River estuary and removal of the four lower Snake River dams.

It's not such a big leap to link Lewis and Clark with dam breaching, Masonis says.

"When Lewis and Clark came down the rivers, they experienced a natural bounty that was magnificent," he says. "We should be commemorating this remarkable achievement in American history by doing more than just putting up kiosks along the road."

Michelle Cole
Conservationists Hitch Ride with Lewis, Clark
The Oregonian, September 16, 2003

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