The Need for Rural Participation and Organization

Every time I speak on the subjects in this book, usually to audiences from Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington, I tell them that the only way we have any chance of bringing reason and balance into salmon recovery (or any other “endangered species” issue, for that matter), is if they get personally involved. People need to show up at public meetings and ask hard questions. The anointed representatives of government are so wrapped up in their own concepts of should be done that it will literally take angry mobs to get through to them.

It is not as if the problem is going to go away. On August 11, 1997, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that five "distinct population segments" of steelhead would be listed as endangered and threatened. The pages of the Federal Register are littered with additional proposed listings of fish up and down the West Coast that are neither “species” nor “endangered” in the sense Congress intended when it passed the Endangered Species Act. Oregon politicians have temporarily avoided a listing of Oregon coastal coho, but the courts and environmentalists may undo that effort. Bull trout throughout the Columbia River and Klamath River basins are likely to be listed as well, in part because of environmentalist lawsuits.

Another significant trend on the horizon is the growth of the “public trust doctrine”. Under this doctrine, courts can destroy vested water rights held by farmers and others if they are convinced that “the public interest” requires water to be left in the river. Environmentalists have written that water rights should be “questioned in light of modern times”. After all, they say, “society has reconsidered century-old decisions in other respects. Women would otherwise not be voting and slavery would be legal”.8 The attitude that a farmer irrigating his or her crops stands on the same moral plane as a slaver ought to be offensive, but this is the attitude that appears to prevail at the law schools.

The "public trust" doctrine is growing in state courts, but the attack on water rights is proceeding in federal courts as well. As the Endangered Species Act is interpreted to require moratoria on water withdrawals all over the Columbia River Basin, water rights decisions, traditionally the province of state law, are slowly federalized. So far, the farmers aren't doing much about it.

New amendments to the Magnuson Act, passed with no public debate in the Pacific Northwest or elsewhere, empower fishery management councils to designate essential fish habitat. Federal agencies will soon have to engage in time-consuming consultations if they would affect such habitat, akin to the Endangered Species Act consultations that have crippled federal resource planning.

As layers and layers of expensive, duplicative and needless procedures clog government natural resource decisionmaking, environmentalists pose as fiscal conservatives. Having caused the skyrocketing management costs, the environmentalists now claim it is too expensive to manage natural resources, so they should just be left alone.

Bit by bit, the benefits of federal water projects are gradually being eroded away by urban interests. Sometimes, as in the case of flow augmentation, the value is simply destroyed. Sometimes, as in the case of BPA buy-outs of ranches and water rights, productive land is simply set aside. The rural people of the Pacific Northwest are themselves endangered by an environmentalist perspective that seems to see them as little more than blots upon the natural landscape.

Government grants pay environmentalists and salmon advocates to prepare anti-dam propaganda, even funding the collection of excerpts from historical documents, slanted to make the “back-to-nature” philosophy seem both reasonable and the justified product of a long historical struggle.9 The once powerful pro-dam public relations arms of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration have been silenced. There is almost no one left to speak for the dams.

Back in the 1930s, when rural areas wanted to bring electric power to themselves, public meetings were held all over the Pacific Northwest to sell the bonds to build the dams. Organizers played Woody Guthrie’s songs about the dams to inspire the people.10 Now rural interests are disorganized and complacent. They seem prepared to stand idlely by while urban interests destroy the concrete benefits of BPA projects for the intangible benefit of "doing good" for salmon recovery—whether it brings back more salmon or not.

8 T. Palmer, The Snake River 24.

9 E.g., J. Cone & S. Ridlington, The Northwest Salmon Crisis: A Documentary History (funded by federal monies disbursed through the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, and Oregon state funds).

10 W. Guthrie, Roll on Columbia: The Columbia River Songs 26 (BPA).

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This Web page was created using a Trial Version of HTML Transit 3.0.