In Maine, there’s an effort to put into practice traditional indigenous methods of land management. This sounds like a smart idea to me — ask the people who have lived there for centuries what works, and try that.
Meanwhile, traditional tribal practices have often proved the most sustainable way to manage natural resources. Prescribed burns in forests carried out by generations of Native Americans in the Klamath Mountains in California, for instance, have prevented destructive wildfires better than European settlers’ methods, which suppressed fire and let forests grow too dense. More wildland managers and scientists in North America now recognize the need for prescribed burns, but they still are not being carried out enough to prevent catastrophic fires.
For decades, tribal members in Maine advocated bringing down Penobscot River dams that once powered saw and paper mills to restore an Atlantic salmon fishery. The Penobscot method of timber harvesting, which leaves 75- to 100-foot buffers of trees around rivers and streams, creates ideal conditions for salmon. Salmon like to spawn upriver in shady pools, created by allowing the forest at a river’s edge to thicken and birch trees to fall into it. One afternoon in late October, I watched Penobscot tribal members and scientists from Maine’s department of marine resources release into the Penobscot watershed 80 adult salmon that the state agency had raised in a hatchery, in the hope that they would spawn in such pools and help restore the historic salmon population.
Ah, the salmon. I grew up near a river that used to be thick with salmon, and my childhood was spent watching the fish slowly fade away, and seeing my father growing increasingly frustrated and depressed about it. The rivers were overfished and abused, and steadily declined in productivity. Gosh, maybe we were doing something wrong.
When we lived in Eugene, Oregon, we were just a few blocks from the Willamette River (hint for non-natives: it’s pronounced will-LAM-it, emphasis on the second syllable), and it was a very pretty river, but we never bothered fishing it. I’d occasionally see fly fishermen working it, but nobody was hauling 20 pound silver salmon out of its waters that I know of. Part of the reason was that it was extensively dammed upstream, and as everybody knows, the salmon life cycle requires swimming upstream to spawn, and then the young fish have to navigate downstream to the ocean to mature. Dams kind of get in the way.
But don’t you worry! The Army Corps of Engineers has come up with a solution for the Oregon salmon fishery!
To free salmon stuck behind dams in Oregon’s Willamette River Valley, here’s what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has in mind:
Build a floating vacuum the size of a football field with enough pumps to suck up a small river. Capture tiny young salmon in the vacuum’s mouth and flush them into massive storage tanks. Then load the fish onto trucks, drive them downstream and dump them back into the water. An enormous fish collector like this costs up to $450 million, and nothing of its scale has ever been tested.
The fish collectors are the biggest element of the Army Corps’ $1.9 billion plan to keep the salmon from going extinct.
Yikes. You know, salmon can swim. They’ve been doing it for millions of years, quite competently, until humans started planting great big obstacles in the way. You could just shut down the dams periodically, and let them do what comes naturally, but no…we need a plan that involves fish vacuums and big trucks. They think they’ve got a good reason for that.
The Corps says its devices will work. A cheaper alternative — halting dam operations so fish can pass — would create widespread harm to hydroelectric customers, boaters and farmers, the agency contends.
Moreover, many of the interests the Corps says it’s protecting maintain they don’t need the help — not power companies, not farmers and not businesses reliant on recreational boating.
The Corps’ effort to keep its dams running full-bore is a story of how the taxpayer-funded federal agency, despite decades of criticism, continues to double down on costly feats of engineering to reverse environmental catastrophes its own engineers created.
The only peer-reviewed cost-benefit analysis of the Willamette dams, published in 2021, found that the collective environmental harms, upkeep costs and risks of collapse at the dams outweigh the economic benefits.
This looks like an expensive solution looking for a problem, after years of amplifying the problems that they created. There is already a simpler solution at hand, but it wouldn’t justify the Army Corps of Engineers spending nearly $2 billion.
There is a simpler way to protect fish: opening dam gates and letting salmon ride the current as they would a wild river. It costs next to nothing, would keep the Willamette Valley dams available for their original purpose of flood control and has succeeded on the river system before. This approach is supported by Native American tribes and other critics.
The Corps ruled it out as a long-term solution for most of its 13 Willamette River dams, saying further reservoir drawdowns would conflict with other interests.
The debate and the consequences of the decision are real for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, who have fished the Willamette for thousands of years. Grand Ronde leaders said they’ve met with the Corps seven times to spell out potential alternatives to building giant fish collectors and maintaining hydropower.
“They always feel like they can just build themselves out of problems. And this is really something that we don’t need to build,” said Michael Langley, a former tribal council member for the Grand Ronde.
The fish would flourish, but the recreational boaters would “suffer.” I say fuck the boaters, I support the fish.
The native American tribes know what’s up, and delivered a pithy, if understated, summary.
The tribes filed a letter with the Corps in February that included a pointed summation: “Killing salmon to lose money deserves a deeper analysis.”
For now, though, we’re stuck with a bureaucracy that can’t see clearly, because they’re so wrapped up in technological solutions that make the problems worse…but increase the power of the bureaucrats.
Former employees and scientists who’ve worked closely with the Corps say its officials are afraid to change because drawing down reservoirs and eliminating hydropower would call into question the agency’s usefulness in the Willamette Valley.
“They don’t like to be seen as an agency that can’t execute,” said Judith Marshall, who spent six years as an environmental compliance manager for the Corps.
Marshall, whose work included projects in the Willamette Valley, filed a complaint with the federal Office of Special Counsel in 2017 alleging the Corps ignored obligations under federal environmental laws.
“They’re some of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered,” Marshall said, but “they’re so wound up in their models and what they’re doing, like they can’t see the forest through the trees.”
They’re not thinking old enough. Go back further than solutions dreamed up in the 1930s and examine solutions that were tested in the thousands of years before that.
It would have made my father happy.