Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I was scrolling through the news this morning when I came across a story on the return - after a 102-year absence - of Chinook salmon to a river in Washington that had recently had its dams removed.

From the story

The largest dam removal in history experienced a key first signal of success this week, as three adult Chinook salmon were spotted above the site of recently blasted-away Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic National Park. The discovery, by snorkeling Park Service biologists, marks the first return of Chinook in 102 years to upper reaches of the Olympic Peninsula’s master river.
“When dam removal began three years ago, Chinook salmon were blocked far downstream by Elwha Dam.  Today, we celebrate the return of Chinook to the upper Elwha River for the first time in over a century,” said Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum. The dam removal will open up an estimated 70 miles of salmon habitat in a river system once populated by thousands of Chinook salmon, some reaching 100 pounds in size.

Now I have never had the privilege of fishing for real, wild, salmon (snoozing trolling, endlessly, for 10-inch long kokanee in Montana's Lake Koocanusa doesn't count) but for some reason this story struck a chord, not only because it gives hope that someday, if I'm ever in a position to do so, the fish will be there for me to experience (salmon, as well as others), but also because it illustrates, beautifully, the wondrous mysteries of the natural world, mysteries worth pondering, and saving. How did those three fish know to get there? Some vestige of an ancient, genetic memory? Pure chance? Three weeks after a century-old dam is gone? That's just eerie. The mind boggles, in a good way. How does nature know how to pull these acts of regeneration?

The salmon reminded me of a story I wrote last year for Covey Rise magazine, about a place in Mississippi's largely-disappeared black belt prairie region, a working ranch/farm/hunting lodge called Prairie Wildlife. The  owner, Jimmy Bryan, is trying to balance the demands of running a large, diversified ag operation with conservation efforts designed to restore long-gone native prairie, and wild quail. And he's pulling it off. As we drove around his property, he showed me areas where native plants, and the insects and animals that depend on them, had come back on their own, almost as if it was a sort of spontaneous regeneration. "I didn't plant it," he told me. "It was just here, waiting. You start doing things, or not doing things, and this stuff just appears."   

Nature seems to pull this trick out of her hat all the time, doesn't she? Whether it's salmon or quail or whatever, nature responds, always responds, to doing right, even if it's just a tiny, seemingly inconsequential bit of right. I'm often pessimistic, gloomy even, about the future of wild places and wild things. I do not know if I will ever get the opportunity to catch a sea-run salmon, or a bluefin tuna, or a steelhead, or all 15 or so subspecies of cutthroat, or any of the other fish on my personal list. I don't know if I'll ever get the opportunity to hunt lesser prairie chickens (at all), or sage grouse (again), or any of the other birds on my list.

The future is a great unknowable, and always will be. But if there's anything this certified cynic can take away from three fish showing up in a river in Washington, or a patch of big bluestem appearing in a patch of dirt in Mississippi, it's this: there is no level too small or too large on which nature will not pay us back tenfold if we can just manage to do a little right, by both us and her. And that's a wonderful thing to contemplate, even for a grouch like myself. Now actually doing it? That's another story, but who knows, maybe we'll get there yet.        


  1. People make this conservation thing sound so complicated. It's really just a matter of getting out of the way.

  2. Goddamn. Thanks for this post.

  3. The Elwha is fast becoming a poster child for modern conservation, and it's very refreshing. If you haven't watched "Damnation" yet, I highly recommend you purchase it.

    The only thing they really mucked up on the Elwha restoration is installing a new hatchery, which will screw up a promising wild fish recovery laboratory with inbred genetically inferior shit stains.

    But those three salmon really shed a bit of positive light, don't they?