“Killing salmon to lose money deserves a deeper analysis”

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.

My father, with salmon, in the 1950s

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.

Am I turning into a Midwesterner? Scary.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and nature to me was towering red cedar trees draped with moss, and rocky beaches covered with sea anemones and urchins. These things are not present in Minnesota, and I miss them. Bland fields of corn and soybeans are boring, completely lacking in majesty and complexity. I used to dream of retiring to some battered old seaside town in my old age, escaping the dreary farm fields of the Midwest.

It’s not happening.

But after nearly 25 years of living here, it’s beginning to grow on me. Focusing on native arthropods has helped, and the realization that this place shouldn’t be about corn is also liberating. The prairie is deeply interesting…it’s just that cornfields are not the prairie. They’re the antithesis of prairie. Getting down close and peering into a mess of wild plants while looking for spiders is enlightening.

Also, I’m really liking this guy. The enthusiasm is infectious. We’ve got a vigorous stand of native prairie plants growing right outside my lab window, and it’s got me thinking that, when the fall is a little further along and the pods start to dry out, I might harvest a few seeds and pot a few at home, or scatter them in my yard.

That bit of restored prairie looks so much nicer than the impoverished lawn surrounding my house.

What I’d like my yard to look like

Nice. Let’s normalize what a midwestern lawn ought to look like.

Think of all the interesting spiders that would live in that kind of chaos! Beautiful!

Somehow I don’t think the city planners would let me get away with it. We’re taking little steps, though — Mary’s birthday present this year was a rain garden, which we’ll have to wait until next summer to have put in.

Uh-oh, Florida

It’s looking ominous this morning for Florida’s Gulf coast. Is “ominous” maybe the wrong word? The situation is more than just threatening, they’re about to be slammed hard today by Hurricane Idalia. Just yesterday I was reading that meteorologists expected it would be a Category 3 hurricane with winds above 100mph, but today they’re saying it’s going to be much worse, with 130+ mph winds.

Idalia rapidly intensified to a Category 4 hurricane overnight as forecasters warned that a “catastrophic” storm surge and “destructive” winds were nearing Florida’s northern Gulf Coast. Idalia is set to make landfall Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said. The agency warned Florida residents to prepare for long power outages and said some locations may be uninhabitable for several weeks or months. Parts of eastern Georgia and southeastern South Carolina also could experience damaging winds.

Unfortunately, hurricanes are not discriminating and this one won’t be selectively plucking up the idiots who voted for their climate-change-denying governor. I’ve never experienced winds that fierce — y’all stay safe now.

A small step to a happier planet

We need to get rid of outmoded regulations on lawns. There’s a growing movement to restore native plants to our yards, and they have many virtues.

Homeowners with native gardens from Florida and Maryland to Missouri and Kentucky have gotten slapped with fines or even have their yards mowed without permission. The reason – taller native plants can get mistaken for weeds. Many cities don’t allow weeds to grow above a certain height, and they don’t have the time or staff to find out what’s what. But native plants have a lot of benefits for the planet. For one, they keep the land cooler. Indiana University biology professor Heather Reynolds says they use heat from their environment to pull water up from the soil and out their leaves.

That got me wondering…how do we define weeds? Is big bluestem ( Andropogon gerardi) a “weed”? That stuff grows to be 8 feet tall with roots diving down 10 feet — it was the native grass that grew all over the region I’m living in, which has since been mostly replaced by corn, which also grows to be 8 feet tall, but has much more shallow roots. Is corn a weed? I live in one of those cities that defines “weeds” by their height. The city of Morris has defined 8 inches as the acceptable height for plants in our yards.

Subd. 1. It is the primary responsibility of any owner or occupant of any lot or
parcel of land to maintain any weeds or grass growing thereon at a height of not more than eight
(8”) inches (except for native grasses and wildflowers indigenous to Minnesota, planted and
maintained on any occupied lot or parcel of land, set back a minimum of ten (10’) feet from the
front property line as part of a garden or landscape treatment, which are exempt from being no
more than 8”); to remove all public health or safety hazards therefrom; to install or repair water
service lines upon any property which is improved with commercial or habitable structures; and
to treat or remove insect-infested or diseased trees thereon. It shall also be unlawful for any such
person or persons to cause, suffer or allow noxious weeds or plants identified and defined by the
Minnesota Department of Agriculture to grow on any such lot or parcel of land so as to endanger
the health, safety and welfare of the City.

I’m pleased with the exemption for native plants, as long as they’re not too close to the front of the property, but I’d like to see a different standard. Let’s call Kentucky bluegrass a weed. Let’s condemn any lawn that is too uniform, that doesn’t support species diversity, that is lacking in flowers to support pollinators.

Who needs a privacy fence when your lawn is made up of grasses and forbs climbing up above window height? Think of all the interesting insects and spiders you’ll get, too, and the birds that will thrive in that environment. It might be a problem when the bison come back and start migrating through your yard, but I think that would be amazing. (Sorry, can’t come in to work today, I’ve got a small herd of a few thousand bison blocking my driveway.)

Beauty and pain

Tomorrow, we go on a field trip to the UMM EcoStation.

Today, I suffer with an Achilles tendon flare-up — I have nasty bone spurs on my heels that sometimes stab my tendon, triggering inflammation, and I’m reduced to hobbling about. I’m still going! I may end up just sitting under a tree and looking at ground spiders, while the students range about. It’ll still be good.

Right now, it’s ibuprofen and ice.

Violent weather

We had a tough time getting sleep last night — a severe thunderstorm slammed into us. Literally slammed us, since the doors to our house, which we had open to encourage air circulation, suddenly all banged shut and then banged open and closed again as we got a little more circulation than we wanted. We were running around the house sealing everything up while the wind howled at us. I had a window open in my office, and I got soaked just walking into close it. Then, for the next several hours, there was a freight train roaring overhead, with constant flashes of lightning. It was not exactly conducive to rest.

The cat disappeared, too. She does not respond well to thunderstorms.

Anyway, our garden was well-watered!

These kinds of fierce storms have been getting more common in recent years. Will people wake up to the reality of climate change someday?

Meanwhile, down south where Republicans rule, the ocean off the Florida coast hit 38°C (101°F if you persist in that clumsy temperature scheme) this week. Imagine a whole seacoast at greater than body temperature! You wouldn’t go to the beach to cool off, you’d go to witness the fish kills washing up on the shore.

Also meanwhile, Sicily is on fire. Temperatures hit 47°C. Much of the island is without power because powerlines have burned down, and underground cables under the roadways have melted.

We’re relatively lucky up here in the north, except for the fact that Canada is occasionally reduced to airborne particulates. People have to figure this out sometime. Right? They will, won’t they?

Good news from the heartland

Morris, Minnesota has won a prize!

The Morris Model team was recently notified that they were among 67 winners in the first phase of the $6.7 million Energizing Rural Communities Prize. The competition was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and is focused on supporting innovative partnership and finance plans to help rural or remote communities develop clean energy demonstration projects.

The Morris Model will receive a $100,000 prize, in-kind-mentorship services, and eligibility to compete for another $200,000.

This prize, managed by DOE Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED), challenges individuals and organizations to develop partnership and financing strategies that support community-driven energy improvement projects in rural or remote communities.  The Morris Model Partnership seeks to make Morris a model rural sustainable community through clean energy and community resilience.

The DOE has a nice logo to go with it.

Yep, that looks like us. Except you’d have to erase the mountains and hills, and paste in a lot more cornfields.

Barbenheimer will be an improvement over the latest hot conspiracy theory fraud

My wife actually asked me if we could see the Barbie movie, which is opening at our local theater this weekend. Of course we can! I was looking forward to it already. It looks to be trippy and fun.

As the media have frequently mentioned lately, because they do love a contrast, the Oppenheimer movie also opens this weekend (but not at our theater.) Cool, I’d like to see that one, too, even more than Barbie. They’re different movies, there isn’t any real conflict between them. Here’s an article that says ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ tell the same terrifying story.

The underlying premise of all the jokes — that these films come out on the same day but are about hilariously different subjects and have wildly different tones — is misguided. The two movies actually have a fundamental, and disturbing, common ground. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind our nuclear age, and Barbie — a toy that takes over three cups of oil to produce before it lingers in landfills around the world — both tell the story of the dawn of our imperiled era.

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” each offer a window into the creation of the Anthropocene, the suggested term for our present geological epoch, in which human beings have become the most significant influence on the natural environment at a planetary scale.

That’s an interesting connection: how do we define the anthropocene, by all the piles of plastic or the global dusting of radioactive isotopes?

Either works for me, they all coexist in a narrow slice of time, only a century long. On a geological scale, either one provides a sharp boundary.

Like I said, I’d like to see both movies. Unfortunately, Oppenheimer isn’t booked locally in the near future. Instead, we’re getting served Sound of Freedom after Barbie, a conspiracy-theory fueled abomination of a movie (see Rebecca Watson for why it’s bad). I predict it’ll clean up at the box office in our little corner of Red America.