[Sunday Lecture] "Watershed Work in a Changing World: Lessons Not Yet Learned" by Freeman House

Watershed Work in a Changing World:
Lessons Not Yet Learned

by Freeman House

Plenary presentation for the California Salmon Restoration Federation’s 25th Annual Conference, Santa Rosa, CA, 9 March 2007

Watershed restorationists tend to develop a peculiar set of mind. Community-based watershed groups, the heart of anything we might call a popular movement toward restoring the Earth, are particularly prone to these psychological symptoms. The accepted protocols encourage us to envision something called “reference ecosystems,” some ideal state of dynamic equilibrium that we are then encouraged to imagine existed once and toward which we should be devoting our efforts. We develop strong attachments to certain elements of the living places in which we work, different elements for different practitioners. Some people love fish and some love trees. Many of us love the whole mysterious web of interrelationships. In all, we act as if the distribution of species and communities and weather patterns—either in the present or in our idealized reference ecosystem — is the once and always way that nature has manifested itself.

Sooner or later, we discover the weaknesses in such an idea. If only by paying attention long enough, we discover that nature over the long term is as fluid and fickle as running water. Recently, researching the prehistory of my region, I discovered something that changed the way I thought of the systems in which I’d been working for more than 20 years. I found that only five to six thousand years ago, the entire bioregion had been a few degrees warmer than it has been since and those few degrees determined a very different distribution of species than those we have been striving to maintain for so long. Most relevant for me was the discovery that in that warmer time that followed the last period of glaciation, there had been few if any salmon using the waters of California. (I found this discovery to be slightly embarrassing, having made public statements which confused the history of salmon speciation with the time that salmon had been using my home river. I would tell people salmon had been using my river for 60,000 years rather than the more accurate 6,000.)

More fascinating, though, is the archaeological evidence of Karuk and Tsnungwe ancestral peoples in the mountains above the Trinity River more than eight thousand years ago. Peoples living today in the Klamath River systems are direct descendants of people who lived through climate changes similar in magnitude to the ones we anticipate now. While those ancient peoples had centuries to adapt to a more gradual change than we anticipate, the degree to which that culture changed its life ways remains instructive. In simple terms, the Karuk people changed the way they lived. They changed from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers living in the mountains and following the food to substantial village cultures with an elaborate ceremonial life organized around newly available acorn and salmon resources. The point here is that a people completely changed their way of life in response to changes in the environment and they did it successfully and sustainably. The scope of change we face is quite different; it’s getting warmer rather than cooler and the rate of change is likely to be much quicker. We may be able to draw no more instruction from the Karuk model than that we adopt similar goals—to change our ways of life in the direction of sustainability and survival. Even James Lovelock, that most gloomy of prognosticators, ends a recent interview that predicts the human species pushed back into the Artic zones with the cheery observation that we are all survivors of humans who have endured half a dozen climate changes of equal magnitude within human time.

Now, you might ask, what does all this philosophizing have to do with how community-based watershed restorationists carry on their work? Climate change models currently available are projected on a global scale with an infinitude of possible local variations. Watershed restoration is by definition a local effort. How can community-based watershed groups include the unknown variables that face us as we make our strategic plans?

There is a hierarchy in the natural world—or rather a number of hierarchies—that have little to do with nation states or the interests of global corporations. One of those hierarchies—the one in which we choose to engage—runs from watershed to bioregion to biosphere and back again.

Response to climate change at the watershed level might be broken into three categories: amelioration of effects, preparation for anticipated changes, and finally, cultural adaptation. These are categories that overlap each other at nearly every stage of their application, so bear with me if what I have to say occasionally seems redundant.

The impetus for this talk came from the realization that in all the strategic planning meetings of which I’ve been a part over the last 25 years, climate change has rarely come up as a criterion for our considerations. Conservation and restoration issues in the face of contemporary extractive rapaciousness tended to capture our minds and efforts in spite of news of global warming occurring with increasing frequency during the same time period. Even as I and my co-workers marveled at the effectiveness with which a few bought scientists were able to maintain a climate of doubt about climate change, we failed to notice that we were in part practicing the same denials, if only by avoiding the words. We were concerning ourselves with the cumulative effects of individual logging plans while the biosphere was dealing with the cumulative effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Nevertheless, in retrospect, we were doing many of the right things in terms of amelioration of the anticipated effects of climate change. We had discovered that the way to pursue our goals most effectively was to build on the resiliency of natural systems to heal themselves. If sedimentation was the factor that was fouling our rivers, then systemically work to reduce potential sediment sources so that the waters could, over time, flush their beds clean. Good roads meant clear creeks. If reduced water flows in the fall are threatening salmon survival—which in the case of my watershed resulted from population pressure rather than from global warming OR extractive activities—then foster an effective community response to water conservation. Such models will be useful everywhere in the face of future instability of stream flow.

And I was evidently not the only one who thought of catastrophic wildfire every time I heard the words climate change, because the Mattole Restoration Council has mounted a monster fuel load reduction program which offers cost-sharing to landowners who wish to pursue it. So far, more than a hundred landowners have signed up, including myself.

I said that we had learned to direct our efforts in ways that augmented nature’s ability to heal itself. The next step in our learning processes is to find the points at which nature’s resiliency can be augmented—in our own watersheds—as whole biomes adjust to disturbances so large that they have only occurred six or seven times within the whole of human history. There’s not time here to deal with the science that attempts to describe the current crisis, but if you’re looking for one readable book that summarizes what we knew as of a year ago, I’d recommend The Weathermakers by the Australian paleontologist Tim Flannery. I’ll content myself for the moment by quoting just a few sentences from page 79 of that book.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a global warming of 1.13° F. has occurred on our planet, and its principle cause is an increase of CO2 from around three parts per 10,000 to just under four. Most of the increase in the burning of fossil fuels has occurred over the last few decades.

In fact, Flannery points out, we have consumed in the last two decades of the 20th century more than half of the energy consumed in the previous 180 years. You can argue that the environmental restoration movement is a reaction to the industrial revolution, but it’s an alarmingly delayed reaction in the face of such considerations.

Which brings us to the second of my categories: preparation for anticipated changes. We can be grateful that the dam of denial concerning climate change in this country seems to be breaking. The recent conservative UN report on global warning took the last brick out of that dam, most of which had already been removed by a swarm of books and movies, most notably the work of Al Gore. But if one depended on the popular media for direction, one might get the impression that by adopting a bunch of technological fixes in the near future, we can reverse global warming. Not so. Even if we as a species suddenly learned to live within our daily solar budget—and that’s in contrast to our current consumption of over 400 years of fossilized sunlight in the form of oil and coal per year—the planet would still take centuries to adjust to the increases in carbon dioxide levels already present. The fixes we know about from the media all seem aimed at maintaining the illusion that somehow, we our going to be able to pursue our ever-increasing levels of consumption. Again, not true, in fact mathematically impossible. Humans surpassed the carrying capacity of the Earth in either 1980 or 1986, depending on which expert you trust. All we can do is to take action—individually, and as watershed organizations, that will reduce the severity of the impacts we can expect, which is what I mean by the amelioration of future effects.

We are going to experience climate change, and with it changes in the distribution of species, the quality of soils, and on and on. “Animals are on the move,” writes Jim Hansen, director of the Goddard Space Institute. Using data developed in Kansas, he claims that the habitats of faunal species are moving poleward at the rate of thirty miles per decade. We must assume that these rates of movement will increase in the near future and we can take instruction about what that means for us by looking at the current conditions of Inuit peoples around the globe who are dealing right now with the disappearance of a way of life pursued for tens of thousands of years. My own assumption is that those Kansas animals are following the movement of plant habitats, which are moving even faster. We have had the dubious luxury of thinking about ecology as an elegant interpretation of the non-human world. We are about to learn something that the ancestral Karuks never unlearned: that we are ecology.

As restorationists, this inevitable scenario requires that we reconsider the orthodoxy of reference ecosystems. We need now to be dealing with unpredictable future ecosystems; we need to become as canny and flexible and adaptive as our fellow species. The science of ecological restoration must embrace some place- and time-based heterodoxy. I can illustrate this with just one of our orthodoxies, our attitudes toward invasive species. The time is coming when we will need to distinguish between species that are invasive and thus unwanted, and new plants showing up in our watersheds that are expressions of biospheric adaptation. Climate migrants, my poetic neighbor David Simpson calls them.

As before, community-based restoration groups will be among the vanguard in these changes, need to be in the vanguard. Where else will the information we need to act locally come from?

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not important that every effort be made, both personally and politically, to reduce carbon emissions in an attempt to limit the consequences of global warming. Priuses and solar panels, green building and so on, as well as demonstrations and letters to Congress will remain part of good biospheric citizenship. But these activities and acquisitions will not be enough by themselves to lead us in the direction we need to go which is toward a human culture guided by the restraints and opportunities of their local ecosystems.

Lessons not yet learned

The figures I mentioned a little earlier—that humans had been operating within a deficit in their solar budget for a couple of decades already—create an interesting equation. On one side of the equation is the need to restore natural capital—the resiliency and adaptability of our native landscapes—wherever possible. On the other side is the specter of scarcity of basic human needs. Watershed workers need to be active on both sides of that equation. Rarely mentioned in popular discussions of the effects of climate change is the breakdown of some aspects of the global economy, in particular, transportation. It is going to become simply too expensive to keep our markets stocked with the year-round supply of foods and clothing from all parts of the globe that we are used to. The only response to this situation that I can imagine is a vigorous localism, by which I mean learning to supply ourselves with what we need from within our own bioregions to every degree possible.

Northwest California is a hotbed of such activities. Food security activists are working hard to educate themselves and their neighbors about our potential to feed ourselves and to become gourmets of local food. Public transportation activists are working at every level to break our addiction to our cars. Economic development activists are working to decentralize and localize the production of our real needs. Sustainable forest harvest activists work furiously to invent ways to work in Northwest California’s productive forests in such a way that enhances ecological services and maintains jobs near home at the same time. All these visionaries are working in parallel directions, but too seldom are they working in tandem. What would happen if watershed restorationists began to seek alliances with these other groups to explore ways to build on each other? It’s an exciting prospect. The ambition to become a force for positive adaptive change is at the heart of the restoration movement.

Watershed workers are no strangers to collaboration. This organization, the Salmon Restoration Federation, is a prime example. Even within small watersheds like our own, less progress would have been made without actively seeking cooperative alliances with like-minded restoration and conservation groups and landowners. Now is the time to be seeking alliances with the user side of the natural capital equation with the clearly stated goal of creating truly sustainable local economies.

The other day I talked to a friend of mine who had just finished working on the annual watershed tree-planting project. He’d made good money, a result of the state requiring prevailing wages for state-supported contracts, and he’d worked with large crews generated by the same largesse. This single planter told me he’d traveled over 80 miles round trip each day to and from the job in a remote part of the watershed. One has to wonder just how much those little trees will have to grow in order to sequester the carbon that the workers had released into the air. Hoedads used to travel in crew crummies to their jobs and camp on site. We might need to think of similar arrangements. I will have traveled over 300 miles to give this little talk. I could have taken a bus, but I didn’t. These are considerations that will force themselves on us very soon. Has anyone converted an excavator to run on used French fry oil yet? (This is a question I know the answer for. Matt Smith, a lead restoration heavy equipment operator, who has done a good deal of work in the Mattole, has converted all his machines to run on biodiesel made from used deep-fry oil.)

That same treeplanter, though, spent far more time waxing rhapsodic about the opportunity he’d had to become intimate with a remote section of the river, giving testimony to the right livelihood aspect of his work. Already the restoration and conservation efforts in the Mattole have, collectively, become the single largest employer in the watershed, and there are few workers that won’t tell you they feel good about what they do, even if they aren’t getting prevailing wage. (Prevailing wage where? this resident of a poor county has to ask). Every poll shows that a majority of American workers are not content with their jobs. What if the majority of us were working collectively with others to improve our common situation?

The last question I have to ask for which I have no answer is this: how should our monitoring activities be expanded? Monitoring has always played an important part in our work—salmon counts, sediment samples, project effectiveness and innumerable other factors have been developed into data bases to make our work more effective. At what point should we begin monitoring the movement of species and habitats? And how would we do it in a manner that doesn’t eat up every year’s annual budget? I don’t have the training to answer these questions, but someone in Kansas does. And I’d bet that among the membership of the California Salmon Restoration Federation, there is enough expertise to mount an ongoing forum for discussion of this and other issues. We need to take care not to underestimate the self-healing powers of nature, at whose service we put ourselves. If we can imagine the planet having a preference, it would certainly be to achieve some new level of homeostasis rather than falling back a few million years and starting over again.

To end, I’d like to ask a final question to which I do feel I have an answer. In a situation of rapid biospheric and biological change, what in the world might we watershed workers be restoring? I’d have to answer that it is nothing less than the human capacity to live with and within nature. Let’s go forward with that goal in mind.


Freeman House is a former commercial salmon fisher who has been involved with a community-based watershed restoration effort in northern California for more than 25 years. He is a co-founder of the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council. His book, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species received the best nonfiction award from the San Francisco Bay Area Book Reviewers Association and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award for quality of prose. He lives with his family in northern California.”

That’s the biographical note for Freeman House on the Lannan Foundation website. We would add that earlier in his life, Freeman edited Innerspace, a mid-1960s independent press magazine for the nascent psychedelic community; presided over the marriage of Abbie and Anita Hoffman at Central Park on June 10, 1967; and was a member of both New York City’s Group Image and the San Francisco Diggers.

This is the tenth lecture in this series. Previous lectures are available here: http://www.arthurmag.com/contributors/sunday-lecture/.

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