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A continent away, we can still put in good word for salmon

September 12, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Would people from Washington or Oregon write their members of Congress asking them to take up the cause of the blue crab or Chesapeake Bay oyster?

After all, what nose in Portland will lose any skin if the Bay isn't saved and Maryland restaurants must import their oysters from Louisiana?

I confess to weakening on this subject myself, on occasion, when the discussion turns to Arctic refuges, Alaskan forests or Brazilian rivers - places I have either already visited or never will. There's an urge to throw up your hands, reckoning we have enough environmental concerns here at home without fighting other people's battles.

Except that for anyone who cares about the environment, they are indeed our battles.

The environment of this planet is not a series of compartments, but an interlocking, flowing aura of life and spirit. When a species or ecosystem dies out, a bit of the planet and a bit of ourselves die as well - if only because we were crass enough not to care.

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A citizens coalition in the Northwest at the moment is fighting for the wild salmon that have populated the Columbia and Snake rivers for far longer than we have. One of their members, Gilly Lyons of the group Save Our Wild Salmon, stopped by our offices recently to ask that we support an effort to remove four relatively minor dams on the Snake so the salmon can maintain their tenuous finhold in the region and regain their past glory. (The salmon, culturally speaking, is to the Northwest what the crab is to Maryland).

Lyons had plenty of facts and figures to prove her case, all of which I found hard to listen to because I kept wondering what a Pacific fish would think if he could be cognizant of the fact that 3,000 miles away, a young woman was sitting in the backwoods of Maryland fervently championing his cause.

There are arguments on the other side, of course. Farmers and businessmen depend on the dams to control the waterways so they can ship their products to the sea by barge, and the dams generate a small amount - 4 percent - of the Northwest's electricity.

Four years ago, the federal government seemed convinced that partial breaching of the dams was crucial to the fish's survival in the region. But federal agencies do as their bosses tell them to do, and on Aug. 31, these same officials now say the dams will stay - that there are other ways of assuring the survival of the endangered salmon. Some of these methods border on the bizarre, such as loading up thousands of fish in tankers and trucking them around the dams.

With the money the federal government is spending on these extraordinary measures, environmentalists believe alternatives to the economic contributions of the dams - such as establishing rail lines - could be paid for.

People are people and fish are fish. It is unproductive for a writer on the East Coast to effectively call for the layoff of a man on the West Coast purely to satisfy his possibly romanticized notion of the sanctity of nature.

Yet bad decisions of the past can't always be defended simply because we've hitched a few economic wagons to those bad decisions. When the environment has been thoughtlessly whittled in some meaningful way, it is up to us to carefully reverse course, being mindful to create as little human pain as possible.

Individually, these whittlings may not seem to mean much; cumulatively, they mean a lot. Our human empire, our human condition and, in truth, our human happiness are built on the beams of nature. Too much whittling on our support structure threatens us with collapse.

People without care for nature tend to spout spotted owlisms, as if the choice is between the livelihood of a lumberjack's family and a bird, with no middle ground. People who think this is so are not thinking at all. We, at times, are an intelligent race. Resources can be worked with and worked around without the wanton destruction that companies frequently resort to simply because it is the cheapest way to go.

Had a group of people had the foresight a century and a half ago, it might have stepped forward and pointed out that the slaughter of the buffalo on the Great Plains wasn't worth the ticket revenue and jobs it was providing to the railroads.

Today, those profits, those jobs, those people are gone.

And so are the buffalo.

There are other profits, other jobs and other people, but there are very few other buffalo. Anyone want to argue that these few moments in history of making money and whooping it up were worth it? How much more might the economies of the plains be thriving today if hundreds of thousands of tourists were showing up each year to view the great herds?

I don't know where a fish ranks in God's hierarchy when compared to a sparrow. But if He cares for his creation enough to take note of such a seemingly inconsequential event, perhaps it should not be so outrageous for us, a continent away from the nearest Pacific salmon, to drop a note to the people who represent us and simply say the same thing:

We care.

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