Soapbox Update December 17th, 2015

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To Build an Ark

With the 5th over-the-bank events (also known as floods) on the North Oregon Coast already this fall, one has to wonder if any salmon eggs are still incubating under the gravel of our major spawning streams any longer. Credible data indicates poor survival in high water winters and high survival in low water winters. Couple these flood events with the warm water anomalies going on in the ocean and the future of salmon doesn’t look too bright.

Recent articles written on offshore conditions give us reason to begin building resilient ecosystems and policy now for a future riddled with uncertainty. The photographs alone tell a stark story about the severity of the situation that humans likely created, starting with the industrial revolution. We’re really in a quandary however, not knowing how to co-exist with our natural world. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard how the rate of extinction is happening about 1,000 times faster since we decided to “manage” our earth’s resources.

The massive floods this year have the issue full frontal in my home county, Tillamook. Historians tell me they warned city officials not to build to the north on Highway 101, for flood waters were sure to invade. Well, judge for yourself. Undoubtedly, millions of dollars of damage have hit the county again. As you may see from the video, the owner of the local hardware store claims the simple act of dredging will take care of all our problems.

Sollie Smith Boat Ramp on the Wilson River December 2015
Sollie Smith Boat Ramp on the Wilson River December 2015

Maybe a more forward-thinking approach would be to look where the problem originates from; massive sediment input and debris flows from the upland forest lands. The county commissioner also highlighted in the footage is the strongest proponent of industrial style harvest on our state forests, which provide a variety of benefits including wild salmon, timber jobs and a strong source of funding for essential services to the county. None-the-less, does it seem backwards to anyone else that the same people think that increased timber harvest and federal government funded dredging will solve all of our problems? You might also guess that it’s also quite challenging to get a wetlands restoration project off the ground in Tillamook County. The Tillamook County Creamery Association’s policy on agricultural land is “no net loss,” so the dairy industry seems to embrace the flooding that ruins their fields and drowns their livestock. And speaking of land mis-management, the malfunction might have something to do with the massive diking projects that created the extensive dairy-lands in the first place.

Admittedly, I still get a little sickly excited when I see mother nature win her way but I can’t help but feel sorry for the folks that deal with this on a much too regular basis. The first time it happened in 1996 however, was certainly an awe-inspiring event. Besides the massive amount of organic material making its way to the Pacific Ocean (read all about it in From the Forest to the Sea), the flood actually flattened the grade of local area rivers and streams, making them more fish friendly by creating complexity in the watershed. After that event, we had to find some semblance of joy from such a devastating event.

Although I haven’t quite studied up on all the details of the Paris Climate Accords, it now seems impossible that policy-makers can deny the impact humans are having on our environment. It seems unlikely however that we’re much closer to changing our behaviors to make a difference; we have the luxury of scapegoating law-makers for not making regulations strict enough to curb our destructive habits.

Given that 3.5 billion people on Earth depend on the ocean for their primary source of food, and many more billion believe that the health of the ocean is directly linked to their own quality of life, we had better be paying close attention to how we manage, or mis-manage this natural resource. For all we know about the ocean, there are vast quantities of function that we don’t know about the ocean. It’s critically important to take a pro-active, conservation-minded approach, especially in times of trouble. We’re entering those times of trouble, right after some unprecedentedly productive times, another sign of climate change, from one extreme to another.

I guess we can’t give up all hope for Congress however. Just recently, Congress finally reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, although it took the passage of an omnibus bill to do it. It’s been a tough road for the environment lately and it’s high time for a course correction. I think we’re going to see that course correction in the coming months when we once again will witness the starvation of seal and sea lion pups along the California coast. A population correction is forthcoming; how far up the food chain will it go?