Sustaining Watersheds

The rural communities of the Pacific Northwest are reaching the limits of a way of life. Many find it more difficult to sustain themselves as they had in the past. But increasingly, community leaders are finding a new way of building a future.
At a time in the Northwest known for militias and timber wars, this approach is proving to be a powerful model of sustainability.

A story of abundance

The Pacific Northwest region is defined as the watersheds of rivers that flow into the Pacific Ocean through North America's temperate rain forests, according to the Northwest Environment Watch.

The Cascade Mountains run north-south, acting as a barrier to the clouds borne by the prevailing winds; rain falls in abundance on the western slopes, but lands to the east are far dryer. The moderate, rainy climate west of the Cascades supports some of the largest, fastest growing trees in the world, and the abundant rainfall feeds the Columbia, Snake, and Fraser rivers and their many tributaries.

The once abundant, now struggling, salmon runs are the region's natural icon. Salmon swim thousands of miles from the ocean to the creeks of Idaho, northern British Columbia, Montana, Washington, Oregon, and northern California to spawn and then die. Their many carcasses once fed bears, eagles, and enriched the soils, and their offspring swam back down the rivers to the ocean to feed in a never-ending cycle that brought the richness of the oceans to the inlands of the Northwest.

This was a land so rich that a favorite celebration of the native people involved giving away accumulated abundance in a “Potlatch.” The native peoples – well supported by salmon, shell fish, berries, and roots – had plenty of time to carve, tell stories, and dance.

The Indian people survived the settlement of the region by outsiders, the wars and diseases, the removal of tribes to distant reservations, and the removal of children to schools where they were forbidden to speak their language, the treaties – many broken, some still fiercely defended.

The newly arrived people came hungry for a fresh start, enthralled with the abundance of the land. A series of boom-and-bust cycles ensued as one resource after another was exploited and depleted. The trapping of beaver and otter brought both to near extinction; gold, silver, and copper mining poisoned rivers and creeks, leaving behind toxic lakes. And the forests of the Northwest were cut – first only trees near waterways, but with the advent of steam and then gas-powered machinery and government-subsidized road building, whole forests were opened to industrial forestry. Mountainsides were cleared, and then replanted, if at all, with monocultures of fast-growing trees in soils eroded from road building and rain.

Soil from denuded slopes washed into rivers and streams, silting salmon spawning beds. Cold mountain streams warmed and carried less oxygen. The once-abundant salmon runs declined dramatically from loss of habitat, overfishing, and from the damming of the rivers.

Coming to terms with this place

The boom-and-bust era is over now in the Pacific Northwest. There are no more resources to take with such abandon. Only remote areas remain unlogged, and lawsuits aimed at protecting spotted owls and other endangered species have shut down or slowed logging in many parts of the region. Many of the remaining salmon runs are threatened or endangered, and Canadian and American fishing interests are squabbling over the remaining catch.

This region is polarized by disputes over resources. In parts of rural Washington state, for example, a typical grocery store carries T-shirts with a target superimposed over a Spotted Owl. People carry guns; threats to federal resource managers are not uncommon.

The people of the Northwest know that the boom-and-bust way of life is over, and many are beginning to look for a different way of living, a way based on treasuring and stewarding the remaining abundance, on staying rather than just passing through, on coming to deeply know this place, and with that deep knowing, coming to love it.

And while coming to terms with their place, the people in these rural communities are also looking for ways to come to terms with one another. Through painful experience, it's becoming clear that while fighting may be an effective way to stop or slow something – like logging a particular old-growth stand – it can't build a sustainable alternative. Fighting doesn't lead to stewardship or community. That takes the rebuilding of relationships polarized by the resource wars. As the stories that follow indicate, loggers, tree planters, mill workers, environmentalists, native gill-netters, mushroom pickers, backpackers, professional resource managers are all discovering they can't win unless they make it possible for everyone to win. There are several factors that make the Northwest ripe for this transformation:

• The resource depletion is obvious. The evidence is everywhere – the clearcut mountainsides; the decline in employment, in fish runs, and in wildlife habitat; the grasslands turning to desert. Yet enough remains of these ecosystems that it seems possible to restore them to health. There are still pristine forests; still salmon that miraculously return to spawn; still healthy grasslands.

• The health of the economy is no longer dependent on extracting raw materials for export out of the region. Montana economist Thomas Power has shown that people are attracted to the Northwest for its beauty and way of life – and so are jobs. Leaving the forest intact may do more for the economy than opening it for logging.

Forest practices based on how the forest will be left after the cut, rather than what will be taken, are beginning to take hold. And many now see that it's vital to get the maximum value from the resource locally, rather than exporting large quantities of raw logs out of the region. As a very simple example, in Vernon, British Columbia, simply sorting logs by size and quality increased the price, resulting in higher profits with less cutting.

• There is a common love for this place – a love that transcends ideology and means of livelihood. There is also a rich pool of scientific and experiential knowledge about how to steward forests, wetlands, grasslands, and fish runs, and there are people – native and non-native – who have stayed in place long enough to appreciate the complex interlocking ecosystems of the region.

• The communities are relatively small, and many people know one another. The polarization played up in the daily news is only a partial story of life in the rural Northwest. There are former loggers who are trained ecosystem restoration workers; former hippies who work as loggers and tree planters; former adversaries who are now friends.

Controversy over collaboration

Despite the appeal of win-win solutions, the community-based collaboration featured in this issue remains controversial. Michael McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club, believes urban residents get disenfranchised when decision-making affecting the National Forests is exclusively local. “What I am disturbed about is the abdication by government agencies in doing their job to represent the entire public,” he told me.

But he concedes that groups like the Applegate Partners (see page 22) are making important progress by taking a watershed-wide approach to environmental issues, and thus including private and public land, and issues of resource extraction and land use.

What's important isn't that the solutions in these articles are always perfect – they're not – or that everyone is happy about outcomes – they aren't. What's important is that individuals and communities are making long-term commitments to fostering sustainable relationships with each other and with their watersheds, and they're attempting to do so without displacing farmers, loggers, ranchers, and fishers.

When the people who actually live in rural communities come together to make decisions, this connection to place and interest in finding solutions that work for everyone provides fertile ground for real progress.

A commitment to community and win-win solutions, a willingness to get real on the scientific and empirical evidence of ecosystem health or decline, and a commitment to stay with the process for the long-haul – these are what make these tales of Northwest communities ones to tell and retell as we write the stories of a sustainable future.

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