Homewaters: Revival

Reviving the Miracle

Revelations can happen anywhere. One dreary July day in 2007, I stumbled into the first anti-Pebble Mine rally in Dillingham, Alaska. Colorful flags and signs depicting wild salmon were waving in the breeze in an old boat yard that spilled over with commercial fisherman in orange Grundens, sport anglers in waders and ball caps, and tribal members in traditional fishing garb. Hundreds of people were gathered, standing in the mud, to hear about the threat of a mine. I’d just been bored. My hands were stiff from mending nets and I wanted to see what all the commotion was about. Dillingham is a very small town.

Next to a set of rusting speakers a tribal elder introduced himself. “We say not just no, but HELL NO to the development of this mine in our homewaters!” The week before, on the other side of Bristol Bay, I’d hung off the stern of a small fishing boat watching sockeye salmon swim in a miles-long school. Wild salmon had turned the estuary into a swimming miracle. I’d never seen anything like it.

I’d run out of money hitch-hiking north to the salmon grounds in Alaska, spending my last $20 on a terrible hamburger in King Salmon. While I ate, two bartenders swept up glass from the previous night’s fight. Splintered pool cues leaned in one corner, but the bottles of whisky had been saved. If there was a frontier, I’d thought at the time, this must be it. I had finally found the edge of the map where humans turn into wild animals and then recede altogether into harsh, untrammeled frontier.

Standing there in the boatyard mud, with the elder’s words echoing in my mind, I couldn’t believe that a huge multi-national company could find this out-of-the-way place. A sudden revelation turned my idea of wild salmon beyond the frontier on its head. No place was too far, too cold, or too wild to escape the interest of ambitious individuals. This special place, like the ones I’d known in the lower 48, still thrived because people stood up for it. Thanks to their advocacy, I had the opportunity to discover and cherish and be enriched by the wild left in these places.

The threat of Pebble Mine has not been vanquished, but the mine has been held off by the passion and dedication of advocates who continue to protect the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon. That is the remarkable power of local grassroots advocacy. From that day and their ensuing campaign, I continue to learn how to build an effective movement to preserve and revive that same miracle of wild salmon that enlivens our Northwest homewaters — that miracle swims here too.

My next revelation came after a handful of years driving across the Pacific Northwest, sleeping in my truck, the dirt, and on strangers’s couches as I worked to grow and support Native Fish Society’s community of River Stewards. Local people who care about their backyard rivers are at the heart of conservation. Without them, it would be impossible to protect and revive the places we all cherish. They are effective advocates because they are speaking on behalf of their home, their neighbors, their drinking water, and their way of life. Social scientists confirm this: A deep connection to place has been identified as one of the most consistent indicators of a meaningful conservation ethic.

Over the past year, we’ve added two new regional coordinator roles: one in the Columbia River Basin and another in Washington. Additionally, our new Wild Fish Fellowship Program leverages the passion and skill of economists, biologists, filmmakers, artists, and social scientists. As volunteers, skilled advocates ensure that local people have the support and the resources necessary to make their efforts as effective as possible.

In 2018, our staff, board, and volunteers have focused on how to come together with other stakeholders in order to make our advocacy as powerful as possible. That’s what this year’s conservation initiative — Homewaters: Converge — is all about. As an organization, we believe that bringing together local advocates from diverse backgrounds is the most effective way to build a movement that maximizes the positive impact we can make for our wild, native fish and homewaters. We have to look for common ground. We have to be willing to build new alliances and relationships.

Although we’re just getting started, our efforts are already bearing fruit. Our Women for Wild Fish Initiative, spearheaded by staff members Tracy Buckner and Jennifer Fairbrother, River Steward Mia Sheppard and Keep ‘Em Wet Wild Fish Fellow Allison Oliver, hosted 25 women in Maupin at the first Women for Wild Fish Rendezvous. The goal of this initiative is to connect women within and across watersheds to promote women as leaders of science-based education, conservation, and wild fish advocacy.

Also this year, Native Fish Society co-founded the Willamette Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Coalition with Association of Northwest Steelheaders, McKenzie Fly Fishers, and Trout Unlimited. The goal of this coalition is to join together, despite our differences, to promote and support the recovery of wild spring chinook and winter steelhead in the Willamette Basin. We’ve agreed to disagree for the time being on hatcheries, each of us working on our own in this realm, in order to collectively work together to pressure state and federal decisionmakers to improve water quality and provide volitional fish passage at federal dam facilities that have run amok in the basin. When we work together in spite of our differences, our advocacy means more. It can gain momentum and spread out beyond our own communities.

On Oregon’s south coast our River Stewards and staff supported local fishing guides and anglers of all gear types, who share a respect and passion for the region’s legendary wild steelhead. The Oregon Coast is the last place in the world where anglers can legally kill wild steelhead. In particular, the South Coast has 10 watersheds that are still managed this way. A lack of funding for monitoring and an increase in angling threatens to reduce the viability of these wild fish. A threat to these fish is, in turn, a threat to the economy of the rural communities that they support. Together, we advanced a catch-and-release proposal starting with a petition carried by dozens of advocates and signed by more than 700 community members. Seventy one percent of those signatures came from addresses in southern Oregon. Catch-and-release regulations would ensure southern Oregon’s wild steelhead remain vibrant and legendary long into the future. It’s a proactive step that everyone is willing to take together.

We’re also working to align ourselves with the tribal nations of the Pacific Northwest. This year we’ve been making progress toward dam removal on the Eel, protections for early spring chinook on the Oregon Coast and Klamath, recovering wild springers and winter steelhead in the Willamette, and improving water quality in the Deschutes. In each of these places, there is a Tribal Nation with a deep connection to the fish and rivers. Together our advocacy is about restoring the ecological and cultural integrity of the Northwest.

The underlying question is, for all of the work we do, can wild fish return to the Pacific Northwest in real abundance? In 2017, Oregon’s legendary Rogue River — once hampered by dams, diversions, and over fishing — supported nearly 300,000 wild fall chinook. 300,000! Thanks to grassroots efforts across the Rogue including the work of our past Rogue River Steward Peter Tronquet, there’s a science-based fisheries plan that protects wild fish, keeps water in the river, and prioritizes investment in dam removal, habitat protection and restoration. It is a glimpse into what’s possible. If we empower grassroots advocates who, in turn, steward their homewaters and champion the needs of wild fish, then wild abundance is possible.

There are always new revelations to come. But we will continue to use what we know now, expanding our incredible community of supporters and members, and empowering our passionate River Stewards and dedicated staff. We’ve never been in a better position to deliver on our organization’s purpose: to cultivate the groundswell of public support necessary for the revival of abundant wild, native fish.

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