“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 seventh lecture in this series. This series ran previously on this site in 2010-11, and is being rerun now because it’s the right thing to do.
This piece was first published in Summer 1992 on the sesquicentennial of Columbus’ landing on North America in the Journal of the Society for Ecological Restoration.
One hundred years from now in a northern California valley
by Freeman House
Contact between whites and natives didn’t happen here in my part of North America until 150 years ago, which makes it easier to think like this. You can still see enough of the earlier patterns in the landscape to be able to guess at what it looked like then. Once contact did happen, however, it proceeded with unrelenting fury. Within a seven-year period ending in 1862, the 10,000-year-old culture that had been so wonderfully adapted to this little tuck in the Coast Range was reduced to a few broken individuals hanging on locally and a handful more isolated from the source of their identity, bereft of home on the reservation a hundred miles away.
Life was pleasant for the whites, in a rough sort of way. For a hundred years or so, pleasant enough so that even now some cowboys look back on that time as the very peak of existence. It was the usual scene for the North American West: a few steers and dairy cows, some hogs for market, and an economic boom every 30 or 40 years to keep things interesting—and growing. The tanbark boom kept quite a few of the boys busy for a time. And even though the oil boom fizzled, it brought the aura and glamor of the great world into the valley for a while, and Petrolia got a hotel. Come the bust, as it always did, well, subsistence was not so bad, with salmon and venison steak to fall back on.
The really big boom, the one that makes you wonder if anyone will survive the bust, came as a windfall to the handful of large landowners. A whole slew of events, historical and technological, had conspired to make the ubiquitous Douglas-fir worth something, worth a lot, after decades of laying it down around the edges of the prairies and burning over it year after year to expand the pasture. Three quarters of the landscape was suddenly marketable after three generations of living well enough off the other one quarter.
It came out fast—90 percent of three quarters of 300 square miles of timber from some of the most erodible forest slopes in North America, all in the space of a single generation. No one paid any attention to what anyone else was doing. There was no awareness, really, that a whole watershed was being stripped of its climax vegetation all at once. For most of the years between 1950 and 1970, several mills were kept running ‘round the clock, and the trucks taking timber out of the valley were so numerous and frequent that their drivers had to agree on one route out and another one in. There was a lot of money; anyone could find a job who wanted one. The schoolteacher worked at the sawmill at night.
Two 100-year storms within a ten year period was bad luck, they said, coming at a time when so many acres of soil were exposed to the sky. But exposed they were, and a vast warm rain on top of an unusually heavy snowpack on the ridges sent thousands of tons of sediment into the creeks and then into the river. In one week in 1955, the structure of the river was altered completely, from a cold, stable, deeply channeled waterway enclosed and cooled by riparian vegetation to a shallow, braided stream with broad cobbled floodplains, warm in summer, flashy in winter. And then it happened again in 1964.
When the new homesteaders began to arrive in the early 1970s, all we knew was that the king salmon and the silver salmon were almost gone. A few of us tried to do something about it, and by 1981 had established a sort of volunteer cottage industry in salmon propagation. We learned quickly that the key to the restoration of wild populations was habitat, and we found ourselves creating jobs along with volunteer and educational programs in reforestation, in erosion control. One thing leads to another—now we hear ourselves talking landscape rehabilitation, watershed restoration planning, water quality monitoring,
We were only vaguely aware that we were engaged in something called environmental restoration, and it wasn’t until the Restoring the Earth conference in Berkeley in 1988 that we realized that we were part of a planet-wide movement. Even before that, however, we had become aware of some of the pitfalls of this new terrain of consciousness. Logging was still a part of the essential economy of our valley. It was happening on nowhere near the scale of the bad old days, and practices had improved considerably thanks to well-reasoned timber harvest rules established during the Jerry Brown administration, but ecological systems were still being disrupted in ways not clearly understood. As we became more skilled in repairing damaged areas, we became aware of the danger of becoming the source of cheap janitorial services for corporate industry and others that might be opening up new wounds even as we were attempting to heal the old ones. It was not enough to become expert in putting back together what had been torn apart. Unless we adopted the cause of local ecological reserves, unless we tried to educate ourselves against destructive land use practices and tried to prevent them when education failed, unless we helped establish new small-scale resource extraction industries rooted in the ethic of ecosystem health, we were in danger of becoming Roto-Rooter persons for a dysfunctional society. If we practiced environmental restoration out of the same short-term assumptions that had created the disturbances in the first place, where could we end but as apologists for new deserts? Even the Roto-Rooter man tells the homeowner to stop pouring bacon grease down the toilet!
We are now concerned with the cultural content of the next 150 years because our experience tells us we must be. A successful sustainable human culture is a semi-permeable membrane between nature and human society, with information flowing freely in both directions. Having put ourselves in the way of some of the physical data coming toward us from the natural world, we are given both the rationale and the imperative for our roles in social transformation. Having perceived the reciprocal relationship between natural systems and local cultures, we have little choice but to work to make the latter more adaptive, more indigenous.
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In making my contribution to this collection of restorationists’ reflections on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing, I will allow myself two assumptions: that profound cultural shifts can happen suddenly and at any time; and that we are now in the midst of a pivotal era that offers us chances to abandon our more deadly economic practices, and begin to seek ways to adapt—and survive.
Because indigenous culture is always a response to locale, I will paint an imaginary picture of some aspects of life in our little valley 100 years from now. I will take a look at how a future might look if the insights available to one environmental restorationist were available to everyone. I will portray a future where timber, fish, and ranching are still the mainstays of economic life because I wish it to be that way; any other alternative seems less attractive. And for the treeplanter who is irritated by heady abstractions—who asks little more, after all, than for good work unfreighted with ambivalence—I will focus on some of the workaday themes of everyday life.
I will speak to you now from the future.
Within the 300 square mile watershed of the Mattole River, samples of all the main habitat types, from mixed forest to coastal prairie, had been set aside before the year 2000. But a biological inventory a few years later revealed that some species were still in decline and in danger of disappearing locally, an indication that the reserves were too small to be viable, that they could not sustain their own biological diversity in isolation. Once this discovery was made public, there was a demand for the creation of ecological corridors between the reserves. These corridors, designated restoration zones, were areas where economic development might take place on the condition that the activities were moving biotic processes toward a wilder, more ecologically stable condition. This new zoning had established an atmosphere of inventiveness and competition reminiscent of the time when early white settlers had depended on each other, and on what the local terrain could provide. New techniques in agricultural production, rangeland management and logging proliferated as human inhabitants responded to the challenge of inventing an economy that enhances other life forms and associations.
Fortunately, there had been time to complete the aquatic habitat inventory before state funding ran out. The collapse of state paternalism had been one of the first indications that resource colonization had reached its limits. It coincided with some very dark years during which the entire West Coast salmon fishery was shut down. It seemed as if the Pacific salmon had gone the route of its Atlantic cousins fifty years earlier. Local river restoration groups had continued to trap the stragglers and incubate their eggs for release of the juveniles back into the wild, though often performing their work in a state of despair. With all commercial pressure relieved for a few years, the restorationists began to see more spawning adults. In collaboration with long-unemployed fishers, they established the first combination monitoring weir and commercial trap near the mouth of the river. During any given week of the three-month spawning season, a predetermined number of spawners are allowed to pass the weir to reproduce in the wild, and the remaining fish are taken for food, or in lean years for eggs for the backyard hatcheries. Most years the numbers continued to increase, and the profit was channeled to habitat enhancement work: riparian planting, streambank stabilization, the modification of fish passage problems. Often, the same workers do fish trapping in winter and habitat work during the other seasons. As the success of this kind of investment became apparent, local municipalities and districts established taxes on natural resources that were exported out of the valley. These taxes have funded community resource investments, which now include reforestation, native plant nurseries, erosion control work, large-scale agricultural composting projects, and local public education.
In the old days, the ranchers had often found themselves at odds with wilderness advocates, who had a fierce appetite for the same open spaces that the ranchers depended on. Some ranchers had had the foresight to band together into agricultural trusts that kept the large open spaces available as rangeland in perpetuity, with the stipulation that the biodiversity of the prairie ecosystems would be protected and enhanced. In a world market glutted with meat, this combination of management styles had seemed impractical and maybe impossible to ranchers whose livelihoods depended on the elimination of predators like coyote and mountain lion. But the Trust Ranchers benefited as pressure developed for other uses of grazing lands in North America, and a concurrent shift away from meat-eating by the general public. In the space of a decade, red meat had become a high-priced luxury item, with most of the price increase accruing to the producer.
Resource export taxes are partially forgiven if the landowner can demonstrate substantial material contribution to the restoration of native ecosystems, and ranchers often avail themselves of this tax break. High prices along with tax incentives make smaller herds practical, and some ranchers now breed and market Roosevelt elk, which has been reintroduced to its native range everywhere in Northern California. This combination of stock, browsers and grazers, has had a beneficial effect on the prairie flora, reducing pressure on the native bunchgrasses and encouraging the recovery of native grassland species. As a more native mix of grasses results in a year-round food supply which is drought resistant, ranchers work with local native plant nurseries and restorationists to set out native bunchgrass plugs. Controlled burning and timed grazing regimens contribute to this transition to native browse, and to the recovery of the classic fire-managed mosaic landscape of the region.
As the profit margins have continued to grow, a more labor intensive approach to predator control has become possible, and young people are employed to range with the herds. Their presence is usually enough to keep the predators at bay. Young people look forward to a period in their late teens and early twenties when they can spend time ranging the high prairies, a kind of rite of passage. Some of these people have become our best rangeland managers; others have become poets and conduits of information from other species. All have become experts at native grassland reclamation, and are in great demand in other parts of the Coast Range.
We find youth ranging in the woods, too. Young people from the forest families, and elsewhere, spend some time dreaming in the forests to see if they can discover a calling as a forester. Ever since the Timberlands Restoration Act (TRA), foresters have been required to live on the lands they are managing. Many young people compete for these well-paid, highly respected positions in a watershed society. As you walk in the woods, you will sometimes stumble on a teenager posturing that combination of humility, sensitivity, and can-do practicality for which foresters are known.
The TRA was legislated in California after several medium-sized timberland owners went broke due to overcutting and the inability to retool for smaller trees. In a bold move to keep timberlands in production, the legislature had made available to cooperatives of loggers and their families low interest loans and tax breaks that made it possible for large tracts of cutover timberland to be kept in the hands of timber producers, and out of the hands of real estate speculators and pulp conglomerates.
One of the criteria for eligibility had been willingness on the part of foresters and operators to live on the land. This has resulted in the appearance of little timberland villages centered around equipment sheds that house mobile mills for roughcutting timber in the woods and tractors for maintaining permanent roads. Larger, permanent mills and curing kilns are located at a few central locations in the watershed.
A diverse, value-added economy has evolved out of the forests here, centered around the California hardwoods that had previously been chipped for pulp, and on the second- and third-growth Douglas-fir and redwood. Trees are marked for cutting one at a time, and the choice of trees is based as much on the effect its removal will have on natural succession and biodiversity as on how many board feet it contains. A crooked hardwood will be taken out because it is shading a straight-growing fir; an old fir will be given a wide berth because it offers shelter for osprey or goshawk. The overriding style is to imitate natural succession and to move always toward climax. Gradually the forest has grown to provide the multiple canopies needed by old-growth dependent species like the Northern Spotted Owl. Recently, “new old growth” has been appearing on the market: second-growth that has been allowed to attain 150 years maturity in a slow-growing mixed-forest ecosystem. It has all the characteristics of the old “virgin” timber, which, a generation ago, everyone thought was gone forever. The burgeoning market for wild food has made mushroom collection a significant part of the annual forest income, and children are taught that mychorrizal relationships are as important as family ties. All organic waste like slash and sawdust which is not left on the forest floor for its nutrient value is now turned into the pellets that have replaced firewood as fuel everywhere. On the homesteads, small furniture and toymaking shops are commonplace.
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Down in the valleys, the schoolchildren pledge allegiance every morning to a real-time satellite picture of the North Pacific and its eastern shores. No other direct link broadcast television is allowed in the classrooms. Later on this afternoon, most of the kids will plant some trees on the banks of a mile of creek they have adopted for study and caretaking this year. These new indigenes are encouraged to look out the window and dream.
Previously in this series: