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Salmon: an Environmental Tragedy in Two Acts

William Dietrich

Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis. Jim Lichatowich. 352 pp. Island Press, 1999. $27.50.

Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis. Joseph E. Taylor III and William Cronon. 421 pp. University of Washington Press, 1999. $34.95.

The Columbia River is the nation's second biggest in water volume, its most heavily dammed, its greatest producer of hydroelectricity and the site of one of its greatest environmental tragedies.

The river once supported the greatest Chinook salmon and steelhead fish runs in the world: a silver tide of more than 10 million fish each year that swam hundreds of miles into the Columbia Basin to spawn. Some salmon, in subspecies now extinct, reached weights nearing 100 pounds.

Such bounty is no more. Today dams block half the Columbia Basin to fish migration, the rest has suffered severe environmental degradation, and the river's commercial, sport and Indian fishery has largely collapsed. Engineers and biologists have spent more than $3 billion trying to retain and restore fish runs and have had little success. A number of fish populations are now listed under the Endangered Species Act. Proposals to breach dams, protect riverbanks and take back irrigation water have the region divided and in an uproar.

The Columbia is only the most famous example of a regional crisis. In the Pacific Northwest as a whole, 106 salmon stocks have become extinct. Fish are gone entirely from almost 40 percent of their historic rivers. Most of the others are at risk. Salmon numbers are severely depressed from San Francisco to the Canadian border.

These two excellent books take a hard look at this management failure and draw remarkably similar conclusions about its causes.

Consumers were promised that technology would allow us to make the Columbia and similar rivers all things to all people: a source of irrigation water, electricity, transportation—and fish. Dams would have fish "ladders," or stepped pools, allowing fish to swim past them. Damaged streams would have fish hatcheries. Harvest would be regulated. Water flows would be controlled. Engineering and biology would work hand in hand. We could grow potatoes and salmon too.

Alas. Salmon, despite being one of the toughest species on the planet, could not adapt well to a series of reservoirs. They need swift water, clean gravel and the food web such an environment provides. Forests were chopped, range land plowed, rivers plugged. Some tributaries were literally pumped dry.

If salmon could climb one dam, the need to climb 10 proved daunting. They were blenderized by dam turbines, preyed on by slack-water bottom fish, poisoned by nitrogen injected by dam spillways, over-harvested by feuding fish agencies, genetically weakened by hatchery stocks and left flopping in farm fields. Idaho's Redfish Lake, so named for the color of sockeye salmon that once spawned by the tens of thousands along its shores, was by the 1990s down to a few fish per year, at best.

The Pacific Northwest has been plagued by 150 years of promises, half-baked theories, fights, lawsuits and wishful thinking about salmon, a legacy as complex and convoluted as thinking about race in the South. Salmon negotiators come to the table burdened with as much history and politics as those in the Balkans, the Middle East or Ireland. Both these books seek to sever the Gordion knot by providing a clear look at where fish management went wrong.

Both help immensely in understanding the knot. Neither quite cuts it.

Salmon Without Rivers and Making Salmon are so similar in subject, theme and approach that it could be argued they are indistinguishable, and hard to choose between. Yet this is not true. Both are impressively researched, cogently written and ambitious in scope, but they differ enough in style and strength to appeal to different readers. This reviewer finally preferred Jim Lichatowich's book because its writing was livelier and its ending seemed clearer; Taylor and Cronon write an excellent book with a muddy conclusion.

Even Lichatowich, however, stops short of offering any bold and simple solution to the crisis he describes, beyond a vague call for river restoration. Breaching dams, he says, is "not a question for a biologist to answer." Why not? Given that these volumes follow a decade's flood of books, studies, papers, speeches, articles and even poems that have examined the plight of Columbia salmon, this unwillingness to advance the issue by choosing one course over another is a disappointment.

Yet the problem is so complex—a conundrum of biology, economics and politics—that the absence of a glib formula for reform is also understandable. In fact this complexity seems to be the point of Taylor's book.

Salmon Without Rivers author Lichatowich is a fish biologist who has been a rare angry scientific voice in a wilderness of bureaucratic timidity and delay. He has been decrying the decline of salmon not just on the Columbia but all rivers in the Pacific Northwest for at least two decades, and he has on occasion suffered professionally for his ahead-of-his-time candor. This book is a summary of the conclusions of a career. His point of view is that of fish, not people, and his point is that salmon need natural river conditions—not dams and reservoirs—to survive. Tinkering with engineered rivers just won't do it.

Written for an environmental publishing house, his book is shorter, punchier and better written for a popular audience than its competitor. A particular strength is Lichatowich's decision to compare the Columbia to British Columbia's Fraser River, where salmon runs still thrive. Both streams originate in Canada's Rocky Mountains, but the Fraser was not dammed as the Columbia was, and its fishery has been managed with slightly more restraint. The author notes that Fraser fish managers have spent less than a thousandth of what has been spent in the Columbia Basin—and have had far better results.

Lichatowich is particularly good at analyzing why salmon hatcheries have not worked as hoped and is bold in prescribing their elimination. It took scientists decades to begin to mimic stream conditions in their tanks so that reasonable numbers of hatched salmon survived, then decades more to realize the hatchery stocks were counter-productive by competing with and genetically weakening the once-plentiful wild fish.

The author begins and ends his book by describing salmon in a stream in Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and the pages of Salmon Without Rivers are infused with an atmosphere of hands-on, practical experience. The book is also a remarkably ambitious summary of the history of fish management, explaining in grim detail the succession of hopes that well-intentioned people brought to the issue—and why those hopes didn't work.

Making Salmon lead-author Taylor is an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University. This book covers much the same ground with at least as much thoroughness and is an impressive compilation of historical research.

Given the authors' respective professions, Taylor's style differs as we might expect. His writing style is more academic: He uses phrases such as "lapsarian fall" and "Spencerian struggle" without explanation, leaving me guessing what they mean. He focuses slightly more on history and slightly less on biology than Lichatowich. His geographic range is narrower: He does not compare American and Canadian management. Yet his book has charts, maps and tables that the Lichatowich volume lacks. Its scholarship will make it a valuable resource to participants in this issue for years to come.

So why did I prefer Lichatowich? Taylor seems so eager to be democratic with his assessment of blame that his book loses some of its potential impact. It's one thing to critically assess all sides and another to imply there's not much difference between them. If everyone is wrong, then nothing is right. Not exactly a helpful model for reform.

Making Salmon is particularly baffling in its final chapter, "Taking Responsibility." Taylor argues that myth and simplistic thinking have worked against salmon management. No argument there. But in dishing out blame he includes urban environmentalists in a way that struck this reviewer as downright weird, arguing they are somehow at fault for being both consumers and outsiders as they demand rural resource reform.

He complains that urban dwellers put the burden of salmon conservation on their rural neighbors, but he ignores the benefit rural economies have reaped from destroying rivers—or that it is urbanites who have paid for, through licenses, taxes, electricity bills and donations, the lion's share of programs to save salmon.

He suggests sportsmen who launched a political campaign in Oregon to halt ocean trolling were hypocritical not because they still wanted to catch fish themselves but because their media campaign consumed river products like paper and electricity! (Psst: Salmon historians use paper and electricity too.)

And he calls urban stream restoration efforts "small and futile gestures" without offering a cost-benefit analysis proving why. I think they are of great psychological and educational benefit.

His dismissal of the cultural importance of salmon in the "Inland Empire" of the Pacific Northwest is, I would argue, an inaccurate reading of sentiment in agricultural communities. Do farmers resent having to bear a heavy burden to restore salmon? Of course. Do they "reject (salmon) out of hand," as a "transcendent symbol" of the region, as Taylor writes? The farmers I've interviewed haven't. These books wouldn't have been written if salmon did not carry that symbolism.

In his eagerness to share blame and halt finger-pointing, Taylor at the end loses some of the clarity of Lichatowich. "I have complicated matters in hopes of undermining the legitimacy of simple explanations," he explains, because simple fixes haven't worked. Fair enough. But if we want to save these fish we still have to act, and Taylor's prescription for action seems as murky as a Columbia reservoir.

He writes, "In decrying the excesses of other resource users, environmentalists have artfully converted self-interest into principle." A healthy ecosystem and species survival have become minority self-interest? Sorry, I don't think so. Environmentalists can be priggish, self-righteous and annoying at times, but they realize the least dollar benefit of all the groups clashing on the Columbia and yet have worked tirelessly for fish. To lump them with salmon destroyers is to violate common sense and any kind of moral compass. They want fish for the sake of the fish, and Taylor wants them for—what, exactly? I could never figure that out.

This is not to reject Taylor's book. It will make you think, and some readers may prefer it, but its delight in moral relativism struck this reader as academically musty.

Certainly both volumes taught me much about salmon and their history, and both should be required reading by Northwest policymakers. The real shame is that they couldn't have been written a century ago, before we got into this mess.

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