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A Fisherman Speaks for Roadless Protections

In the Spring of 2006, Earthjustice Senior Editor Tom Turner visited some of the people and places Earthjustice works to protect. Here's his report.

Harvey Young chases fish. Or drifts past them, dangling temptations. Or plants hooked flies just by their noses. He takes other people out in boats to do the same. This is in the lower reaches of a half-dozen rivers in northern California and southern Oregon. The target is salmon and steelhead. If the rivers get messed up, the fish suffer. So does Harvey. He's a big fan of wilderness and other undisturbed watersheds. They make his way of living possible.

Harvey grew up in Mill Valley, California, graduated from Tamalpais High School there, then took some science courses at College of Marin. The lure of the rivers was too strong. He quit college and went to pilot rafts -- on the Colorado, through the Grand Canyon, and later in Idaho.

In Idaho, part of the attraction of some of the trips was the fishing. "The streams coming out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness are crystal clear, perfect for trout, because there are no clearcuts, no roads." They fished for westslope cutthroat trout. There would have been salmon spawning in the streams as well if it hadn't been for all the dams on the lower Snake that fenced them off from their home habitat.

When Harvey got married to Suzy and they started a family, he decided he wanted to be his own boss and they moved to Oregon to start a business guiding fishermen (-women too) into the lower reaches of the coastal streams on both sides of the California-Oregon border. "Some of these watersheds, the Chetco especially, were hit hard by logging in the fifties and sixties but are now recovering. Steelhead are in pretty good shape. Salmon not so much." This is because steelhead spawn higher up in the watersheds and the big trees, and therefore the logging, are concentrated lower down. "The very best streams have roadless headwaters. It's that simple."

As in many matters having to do with natural resources, the politics don't always follow predictable routes.

"Professional fishermen are mostly Republicans," Harvey says. "But now they're beginning to have questions. They wonder why the Bush administration has pursued policies that hurt fish and fishing."

Trouble on the Klamath

The Klamath River, which enters the Pacific a little way down the coast from Harvey's Brookings, Oregon, home base, is much in the news as we are talking in the spring of 2006. A massive irrigation project begun in the 1880s turned the high, arid basin into a maze of canals and ditches, dams and flumes, and, in dry years, the fish in the river have suffered. In 2002 it was so bad that upwards of 70,000 adult salmon perished, along with uncountable thousands of infant fish. There are no roadless areas left in the headwaters of the Klamath. If there were, things might be better.

Two days after we spoke, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council decreed that the commercial salmon season would be so drastically reduced that many fishermen, who have made a living in the industry for decades, feared that they'd be driven out of business. The cutback is to allow Klamath stocks to rebuild themselves, which may take several seasons. The curtailed season shouldn't have much effect on Harvey's business since his clients fish for sport, frequently releasing the fish they catch, unharmed. Still, it's a bad omen when the rivers are in such dire condition.

The Biscuit Fire

Another topic of intense interest here and now is what to do in the wake of a huge fire, known as the Biscuit Fire for the little valley where it started. The Biscuit burned 500,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest in 2002, some in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and a fair amount in unprotected roadless areas.

The timber industry wanted to go in quickly and conduct what it and the Forest Service call "salvage" logging. Their argument is that the scorched trees are worth too much to let simply rot and that the forest will recover more quickly if they're allowed to replant the ground with seedlings.

Harvey Young had a front-row seat. He had fought the fire as a volunteer for several weeks, being a good, public-spirited citizen. Once the fire was out, he wondered what the first big rain would do to the watershed. Would it all wash away, have lost much of its cover? Would it really be better to barge into these steep watersheds and try to get seedlings started?

"After the first big rain the Chetco ran kind of yellow for a day. That was the ash washing off. But after that it was clear. The watershed was taking care of itself."

And as if to confirm the general message, a graduate student at the University of Oregon wrote an article in Science magazine reporting on research he had conducted on the same topic. He found that the disturbance caused by the salvage logging increases erosion and impedes recovery. The story caused a sensation. Several professors in the U of O forestry school denounced it, and the Bureau of Land Management threatened to withdraw funding support for the program before it thought twice about it and relented. Roadlessness is good for watersheds, even after -- particularly after -- a wildfire.

Good for Business

Harvey's business runs year-round. He takes people in a variety of different sized boats into the lower reaches of the Klamath, the Chetco, the Smith, the Rogue, the Elk, and the Sixes. Salmon, common knowledge has it, stop eating when they hit fresh water on their way to reproduce, but, Harvey explains, they can be provoked to hit a spinner, a fly, or a lure, sometimes even an anchovy or a herring out of habit. To stay in business, he needs customers. To attrack customers, he needs to take them to places where they catch fish, whether they keep them or not.

"Seeing a steelhead jump is one of the great sights in all the world," he says.

"Before Europeans came, before dams and logging and mining there were abundant fisheries in all the rivers. Just incredible runs. The rivers that do the best are the ones with roadless headwaters. They're self-regulating. There's no need for hatcheries."

Hatcheries. By law, hatcheries exist to either help declining wild stocks to recover or to mitigate for loss of wild fish because of habitat loss. But these days, hatcheries are the mortal enemies of wild salmon, used as an excuse for not protecting the habitat wild salmon need to survive and thrive. Including, especially, roadless areas.

Harvey on Hatch Boxes

"I believe to restore the runs of wild of Salmon and steelhead a suitable approach would be hatch boxes to supplement the wild fish runs.

"The hatch box program, which flourished on the Chetco in the early 'eighties was a successful community-based effort to engage groups of people to adopt a hatch box. Volunteers build the wooden boxes measuring three feet long by one foot wide. They then place the boxes along the river and in the side streams leading to the main river. Eggs, wild fish strains particular to the river in the program, are placed in a gravel medium in the hatch box.  Volunteers then monitor their chosen box and record the success rate of the hatch.

"While still a temporary and somewhat artificial means of increasing fish populations, it is a method far superior to hatcheries for many reasons: it is smaller in scale and very economical, it brings the habitat into the relationship, and, more important, it brings the community into the process. When you have people who have a vested interest in the health of their hatch box, and the river where it rests, you have the magical connection between man and nature. People will fight for untouched habitat when they have a relationship with it.

"Rather than an industrial cement pond with thousands of non-specific area eggs, growing up away from the river, fed by artificial means, potentially ravaged by diseases, the hatch box keeps the fish in the river where they grow up naturally.

"Conversely, dumping hatchery fish into moving water, like a Disneyland attraction, not an intact ecological system, is a panacea, redeeming the destruction of habitat  by 'fixing it up.'  All for show but not sustainable.

"I think environmentalists, proponents of roadless and wild areas, would be well served to go out and volunteer to set up and work for a hatch box program.

"When fish cannot be caught, when you break the bond between the fisherman and the river and the roadless areas that support it, the fish become invisible and will disappear into the stuff of memories.

"Habitat is where it's at!"