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Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River.

Part travelogue, part journalistic treatment, and pan historical review,

Northwest Passage is an entertaining analysis of the history of the Columbia

River. Author William Dietrich has succeeded in constructing a big-picture

study of social development and changing attitudes toward the environment

in general and the Columbia River in particular. Dietrich's work looks at

where our aspirations have led us and defines the context in which the river's

problems have arisen and must be addressed.

I. Introduction

William Dietrich(1) has written extensively about environmental issues in the Northwest. His first book, Final Forest,(2) received national acclaim as an exhaustive study of perspectives about the endangered Spotted Owl and the logging of ancient Northwest forests. Dietrich considers his new book, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River,(3) to be a sequel.(4) In many ways it is. As Dietrich was finishing Final Forest, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed the listing of some Northwest salmon under the Endangered Species Act.(5) The listing of salmon raised many of the same policy issues and legal questions concerning management of the Columbia River that the listing of the owl had raised concerning management of Northwest forests.

In Final Forest, Dietrich discussed our failure to manage ancient forests in a manner that prevents their incremental loss over time. We are also failing to prevent the loss of salmon. Neither of these failures is intentional; each is largely the result of our inertia to change and our indifference to the loss. Dietrich says Northwest Passage is not intended to define how his readers should think and feel about the river; he claims he merely wants them to think and feel something, to prod them from indifference.(6) It is difficult to believe Dietrich is being quite genuine in this claim. The taming of the Columbia's cataracts and the damage we have caused to the river's ecology cannot help but kindle remorse for our loss of The Wild. Yet, this is not a book designed to persuade us into directed action, but to help us understand where our aspirations and history have led us.

II. Summary

A. Natural Beginnings

The book progresses approximately chronologically. Dietrich explains the Columbia's geology with particular emphasis on crashing continental plates, sprinting glaciers, and chronic floods from ancient Lake Missoula. Twice each century until about 12,800 years ago, the impoundments around Lake Missoula failed, releasing 500-cubic miles of water in torrential pulses that scoured and sculpted the Columbia basin and the Northwest region.(7) These processes occurred so rapidly, in geological terms, that they created the steep gradients and cliffs that form the spectacular rapids and views for which the Columbia has become famous.(8)

B. Finding the Ouragan(9)

The book then moves on to exploration and conquest of the region by white Euro-American explorers. Dietrich notes that while aboriginal Americans had lived along the river at least eleven millennia before its discovery by whites, the present condition of the river is essentially the consequence of its development by whites during the last two hundred years.(10)

Euro-americans needed a western river to complete their transcontinental waterway, and thus invented such a river in their minds long before having any evidence that the Columbia existed.(11) Despite several decades of searching, the Columbia avoided discovery because its explorers had difficulties traversing its basins and tracking its tributaries. Furthermore, the river was hidden from ocean-going explorers because its now infamous bar(12) concealed the Columbia's mouth.

In 1792, an adventurous Captain Gray successfully navigated the dangerous bar and entered the river with his ship the Columbia Rediviva, future namesake of the river. It would be over a decade before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark discovered that no transcontinental waterway existed and several years after that before cartographers would understand the Columbia's twisted course. During these years, while the United States, Spain, Britain, and France vied for superiority over the region, entrepreneurial seafarers traded copper and nails to Indians for pelts and salmon, and then traded the pelts in Asia. But times were not all happy, a,nd encounters between the Indians and whites did not always end well. The Indian cultures quickly declined in the face of European disease and weaponry, but the fate of both cultures became intricately entwined. Dietrich notes that while we have been conditioned to look for heroes and villains, the relationship between the whites and the many different Indian cultures was an enormously complex story of mutual dependence and exploitation, shifting strategies, chronic misunderstandings, bitter ruthlessness and generous aid by all sides."(13)

C. Settling the Area

As the dribble of settlers along the Oregon Trail became a flood during the mid-1840s, conflict between whites and Indians grew. The peoples did not understand one another. When whites mined an area out, allowed their cattle and sheep to overgraze it, or otherwise exhausted its resources, they moved on. The tribes had inhabited the same area for as long as their oral tradition could remember and had no inclination to move or be pushed aside.(14)

The first wheeled wagon to traverse the Oregon Trail was that of Presbyterian minister Marcus Whitman and his new bride Narcissa.(15) Although the Whitmans failed to convert many Indians to their stem Christian mythology during their eleven-year mission, they were instrumental in promoting white settlement of the area.(16) Whitman himself led the first big wagon train of a thousand people in 1843.(17) On November 29, 1847, the Whitmans were killed by a group of Cayuse Indians.(18) Following a two-year period of hostilities, the Cayuse gave up five Indians for trial for the murder of the Whitmans. It was the first murder trial in the new territory.(19) There was testimony that the Indians believed Rev. Whitman was poisoning them while pretending to give them medicine,(20) but others believed the Indians acted in response to the danger they perceived from the Whitmans' planning arid directing of white settlement.(21) The reason for the massacre and the identity of the perpetrators were rather a side issue at the trial. This was no constitutional adjudication of a crime; it was one culture asserting dominance over another. It was the beginning of "civilization" in the Northwest, and it was intended to show that whites had come of age in the Columbia River frontier.

D. Pooling Our Resources

1. Taming the Torrent

The whites were disappointed in the Columbia. They wanted a western version of the Mississippi--a slower, navigable river to transport their loads and provide a base for their cities. What they found "was a cataract of wildly seasonal flows, impassable falls and rapids, deep canyons, desolate desert terrain, and Canadian mountains with incredible winter snows. It had a dangerous entrance and a remote origin."(22) This was not a river that would work for them; this river stood as a barrier, stealing away their precious water, flooding their homesteads, and taking their lives at every opportunity. This was a river they had to conquer.

By the 1870s, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers set to work dynamiting obstructions in the river and building bypass canals and locks around areas that could not be made navigable by blasting.(23) With that taste of river domination, the nation set out to enslave the wild Columbia. Early on, we decided it was not enough to merely tiptoe around the river. Noting that development of the river for navigation should also provide for generation of electricity, President Theodore Roosevelt summed up the thinking of the time, stating 'Every stream should be used to the utmost."(24) The Northwest ran with this idea, creating a staircase of dams and locks from Portland to Idaho and Canada.(25) These dams were expensive, and they were built in then-remote parts of the country where there were few people to benefit from these expenditures. Nonetheless, this was a young country drunk with the desire to conquer the useless wild resources with ingenuity. So, we built dams, lots of dams. Today, only about 50 of the 581 miles between the Bonneville darn and the Canadian border are free-flowing; the remainder are under reservoir pools behind the eleven major U.S. mainstem dams.(26)

These dams do produce the electricity for which they were designed. Northwest electricity has been an immensely valuable asset to those in the region and is the cheapest in the country.(27) In the early days, some praised the growing availability of electrical appliances for the emancipation of women.(28) Others have attributed the victory over Japan and Germany in the Second World War directly to the plentiful electricity and the aluminum and bombs it enabled the United States to produce.(29)

Some darns were placed for 'reclamation" of agricultural lands. Although John Wesley Power had long warned that there was simply not enough water to irrigate more than three percent of the West, many settlers preferred to believe in Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden's fanciful optimism that "rain follows the plow."(30) Dietrich notes that the failure of many farms due to irrigation problems ironically fueled more attempted irrigation, not less.(31) The irrigation systems watered far fewer farms than intended, and did so at a time when the government was taking surplus farmland out of production in the East. Furthermore, most of the water irrigated alfalfa, a crop that is not directly consumable by humans.(32) We never actually decided to favor Idaho potatoes and mid-columbia beef over Astorian salmon.(33) Yet, that is what we did.

2. Damming the Salmon

One author wrote that the Columbia is "a river that died and was reborn as money."(34) This is not strictly true. There is still a river, but it is a vastly different river. Its once rapid current has been drowned under the slackwater pools behind the dams. Its once rock and gravel bottom is now silt and mud from development, logging, and cattle. Its once turbulent, cold waters are stratified into temperature layers topped with a hot summer lens. Discharged industrial pollutants and runoff from sprayed and fertilized farrnland, along with aeration at the darns, has changed its water chemistry.(35) All of these influences change species diversity and metabolism of the biological community at the points of impact, but also cause a domino effect of community change all the way down the river.(36)

Dietrich reviews the changes in the Columbia basin ecosystem, always keeping in mind the link between the impacts and their indirect effects on salmon. In fact, he discusses salmon throughout the book because salmon have been a fundamental part of the Columbia's ecosystem for as long as they have swum upstream. As young, they are abundant predators and prey. When they return from the sea, their bodies feed seals, bears, eagles, and ravens. The remainder become a nutrient source for aquatic life. Salmon are also an important source of food and cultural identity for Columbian Indians, and they fuel a major commercial fishery. The Indians and white fishermen have always lamented the loss of the huge salmon runs, but a popular environmental concern for the Columbia as an ecosystem and salmon as a species, valuable in themselves, is a relatively new movement.

Salmon populations are in precipitous decline and have been for over a century. Dietrich believes that the salmon's grim fate may have been sealed by the time the first 144 tons were canned in 1866.(37) Within twenty years there were fifty-five canneries, and the catch was already declining from overfishing. Although few experts doubt that the hydroelectric dams are the biggest factor in today's salmon decline,(38) there is a broad assortment of contributory impacts. Using a hypothetical fish named "Suzy," Dietrich illustrates the mortality risks of the fish during its life cycle.(39)

The dams may be a major cause of fish mortality, but many other natural and human factors contribute as wen.(40) Much of the science concerning the salmon is inconclusive and all of it is relatively new. The confusion in the science has become a rallying point for industrial and business interests under the conservative political agenda.(41) The conservatives believe it would be better to wait until definite scientific answers are found before they make costly changes and concessions.(42) The danger with this philosophy is that definite scientific conclusions are seldom available in areas like systems ecology, in which many complex and interrelated variables must be considered. Therefore, while we wait for science to give ultimate answers, we maintain a status quo that may favor continued over-exploitation of resources.(43) A better strategy is "adaptive management," in which decision makers consider the complex problems in light of evolving information and try to take steps in the right direction even when the ultimate destination is unknown.(44)

E. The Fix

In 1980, Congress passed the Northwest Power Act.(45) The Act called for an unprecedented fish and wildlife program to be developed by a newly created interstate agency, the Northwest Power Planning Council.(46) However, implementation of the Council's programs has been problematic because of jurisdictional and coordination issues, and the salmon populations have continued to decline. The declines led to the listing of several salmon species in 1991.(47) But the invocation of the Endangered Species Act has not solved the coordination problems between the various interests.(48) Coordinating two countries, three states, twenty-three state and federal fisheries agencies and tribes, over a dozen power agencies, as wen as industry, farm, commercial fishery, and environmental groups, has been an unsurmountable task. No one is in charge of coordinating a salmon recovery effort,(49) and more time is spent pointing fingers and wandering through the maze of overlapping legal requirements than finding adequate solutions. However, a recent court decision held that the National Marine Fisheries Service must give due consideration to information from the states and tribes in drafting a biological opinion about the salmon.(50) With this admonition from the courts for the interested parties to pool their efforts and work together, perhaps some substantive solutions will be found.

III. Analysis AND Recommendation

Northwest Passage is part travelogue, part journalistic report, and part historical review of the colorful personalities who have influenced use of the Columbia.(51) The stories he tells will surprise you. He presents the abuses of the river along with the relatively innocent and likable people who have etched out a living through exploiting it. Northwest Passage is one of a trio of books published in 1995 about the history and current condition of the Columbia River.(52) But its breadth exceeds these other works. Dietrich has succeeded in constructing a big-picture study. He compiles the relevant geological and human history needed to understand the origins of the contemporary crises, examines the political, economical, and ecological problems involved, illustrates how the various points of view have evolved, and presents these opposing views in balanced journalistic fashion.

An analysis of the complex requirements of the Endangered Species Act, the Northwest Power Act, and the multitude of other overlapping and conflicting statutes and regulations is noticeably absent in the book. Dietrich is more interested in examining the "whys" than the "hows" of the river's history. This is a strength of the book-too much time has been spent arguing about the rules and not enough about the big questions of what we want to do in the Columbia River Basin.(53) With the historical perspective Northwest Passage provides, perhaps we win overcome our present inertia and actually do something for the fish.

Northwest Passage may not hold the needed prescription to cure the Columbia's woes, nor answer the big questions about who holds the larger rights to its conservation or use. However, the book is more than a report on the sad effects of turning the river into a series of dammed pools-it is a study of social development and our changing attitudes toward the environment in which we live. Northwest Passage defines the contexts in which the river's problems have arisen and must be addressed, and it should be required reading for anyone interested in western environmental issues.

(*) Attorney; Environmental Law Specialist, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. J.D. 1993, Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College; Ph.d. Ecology 1990, M.S. Zoology 1987, University of Georgia. (1) Aft. Dietrich is the Science Editor for The Seattle Times and a 1990 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism. (2) William Dietrich, Final Forest. The Battle For the Last Great Tress of the Pacific Northwest (1992). (3) William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River (1995). (4) Interview with William Dietrich in Portland, Or. (May 12, 1995). (5) Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. [subsections] 1531-1544 (1994). Snake River Sockeye Salmon were listed as endangered species. 56 Fed. Reg. 58,619 (Nov. 20, 1991) (codified at 50 C.F.R. [sections] 17.11 (1994)). Snake River Spring/Summer and Fall Chinook Salmon were listed as threatened species. 57 Fed. Reg. 14,653 (Apr. 22, 1992) (codified at 50 C.F.R. [sections] 17.11 (1994)). This listing was later modified to include a listing as endangered on an emergency basis, 59 Fed. Reg. 42,529 (Aug. 18, 1994) (codified at 50 C.F.R. pts. 222, 227 (1994)), while being proposed for "permanent" listing as endangered, 59 Fed. Reg. 66,784 (Dec. 28, 1994). (6) Dietrich, Supra note 3, at 25. (7) Id. at 121-31. (8) As if to highlight the speed of geological change, the image of Multonomah Falls on the jacket cover of Northwest Passage was made obsolete when a bus-size piece of rock fell from behind the falls, changing forever the trajectory of Multonomah Falls. See Michelle Trappen & Laura Trujillo, Multnomah Falls Slide Injures 20, The Oregonian, Sept. 5, 1995, at A1. (9) French map-makers began illustrating an imagined great western river cared the "Ouragan" in the early 1700s, though none had seen it Dietrich, supra note 3, at 55. (10) Id. at 52. (11) See supra note 9. (12) The Columbia River bar creates high waves and dangerous currents. To make matters worse, the bar is often enshrouded in fog. Over 100 major ships and nearly 2000 smaller vessels have sunk here, drowning an estimated 700 people. Dietrich, supra note 3, at 97. (13) Id. at 139. (14) Id. at 151. (15) Id. at 165. (16) See, e.g., Office of the Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book at iii (Danni Chain ed., 1993-1994). The Oregon Blue Book is an official state directory and manual of facts concerning the state of Oregon. (17) Dietrich, Supra note 3, at 170. (18) Id. at 177. For an excellent review and analysis of the Whitman case and the novel performance of its activist presiding judge, see generally Ronald B. Lansing, Juggernaut: The Whitman Massacre Trial--1850 (1993). (19) Lansing, supra note 18, at 34. The Territory of Oregon was created on August 13, 1848 by an act of Congress. Dietrich, Supra note 3, at 178. The Whitman trial was held in 1850. Lansing, supra note 18, at id. (20) Lansing, supra note 18, at 33. (21) Id. at 77, quoting Letter from Henry Kirk White Perkins to Jane Prentiss (Oct. 19, 1849), reprinted in 2 Clifford M. Drury, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon 390 (1973). (22) Dietrich, supra note 3, at 74. (23) Id. at 186. The first canal, Cascade Locks, was completed in 1915 at a cost of three times its original budget. It was completely idle by 1919 because shippers preferred to use the railroad tracks on the Columbia's banks. (24) Id. at 204, quoting President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. (25) Northwest Passage includes a map showing the position of the major dams on the contemporary developed river, id. at 16-17, and a table of characteristics for each dam, id. at 409-13. (26) Bob Devine, The Salmon Dammed, Audubon, Jan.-Feb. 1992, at 84; Dietrich, supra note 3, at 409. (27) Dietrich, Supra note 3, at 312. However, the electrical rates in the Northwest are subsidized by the rest of the country. Id. One critic noted: "The Columbia is certainly a wonderful river. h waters four states and drains forty-eight." Id. at 304. (28) Id. at 251-52 (statement of Anne H.T. Donaldson, wife of a Grand Coulee engineer). (29) Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water 168-70 (Penguin Books 1987) (1986). (30) Dietrich, supra note 3, at 227; see also REISNER, Supra note 29, at 47-53, citing John Wesley Powell, A Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah (1876). As late as 1990, serious proposals were made to divert Columbia waters to irrigate desert destinations as far away as Los Angeles. Clifford J. Villa, Comment, California Dreaming: Water Transfers from the Pacific Northwest, 23 Envtl. L. 997, 1007-08 (1993). (31) Dietrich, supra note 3, at 227-28. (32) Id. at 44. (33) Id. at 228. (34) Dan Worster, Rivers Of Empire: Water Aridity and the Growth of the American West 267 (1985), cited in P.J. Boon, Essential Elements in the Case for River Conservation, in River Conservation and Management 11, 12 (P.J. Boon et al. eds., 1992). (35) Dietrich, supra note 3, at 356-63. The worst is yet to come: a migrating five-square-mile plume of plutonium-contaminated groundwater from the Hanford nuclear facility is expected to reach the Columbia by the year 2185. Id. at 371. (36) Robert L. Vannote et al., The River Continuum Concept, 37 CAN. J. Fisheries & Aquatic Sci. 130 (1980) (streams are longitudinally linked systems; absent disruption, lotic communities change in a predictable manner as channel geomorphology changes and alters available resources); J.D. Newbold et al., Organic Carbon Spiraling in Stream Ecosystems, 38 Oikos 266 (1982) (rates of uptake and release of nutrients, combined with downstream transport, determine the downstream availability of the nutrients); Leslie A. Carlough, Fluctuations in the Community Composition of Water-Column Protozoa in Two Southeastern Blackwater Rivers, 185 Hydrobiologia 55 (1989) (community composition of sestonic organisms at any point along the stream is a function of upstream growth and recruitment). (37) Dietrich, supra note 3, at 334-35. (38) The dams impound large, slow-moving, deep lakes that are silted at the bottom and hot at the surface. Passage through the dams stuns the smolts and causes nitrogen narcosis during passage, thereby exposing the smolts to additional predation. Perhaps most importantly, the dams slow the travel of the smolts on their way to the sea. (39) Luckily "Suzy" was more successful in negotiating the Columbia!s obstacles than "Nerka" was in negotiating the obstacles in a similar hypothetical history of a salmon in James Michener's book Alaska. Suzy, Dietrich's hypothetical salmon, had a much more difficult trek. Compare Dietrich, supra note 3, at 340-46 with James A. Michener, Alaska 527-627 (1988). (40) Dietrich discusses the many factors that contribute to the salmon's current decline: commercial and recreational fishing; competition, genetic dilution, and increased exposure to disease from hatchery fish; predation; logging; cattle; channelization due to road building and unwise development; barging; industrial pollution; irrigation and chemical-intensive farming; and of course the darns. Dietrich, supra note 3, at 118, 340-46. (41) For example, Oregon's House of Representatives passed a House Joint Memorial that admonishes the federal legislature to substitute the term "sound, verifiable science" for "best available science" in all environmental legislation. H.J. Memorial 2, 68th Or. Leg., Reg. Sess. (1995). The Memorial states that the reason for the substitution is that "the phrase `best available science' may be no more than anecdotal and something other than proven science [and which] may be biased in numerous ways and can lead to unwise decisions that may have far-reaching negative effects . . . ." Id. (42) The problem with this attitude is two-fold. First, the attitude comes from the idea that managing the river to save salmon is expensive. However, most of the available estimates of fish-saving costs are based on the lost opportunity costs of the dams operating below maximum or other questionable assumptions that presume industry entitlement to use of the river. Dietrich, Supra note 3, at 332; see, e.g., Daniel Rohlf, Legal Issues Shaping Salmon's Future, 25 Envtl. L. 413, 416 (1995). A second problem is that salmon biology is very difficult to study--a scientist cannot follow an individual fish from the headwaters, through the Columbia system, into the ocean for five years, and then back up the Columbia. There are many variables to consider concerning the salmon populations and environment in which the fish must live. (43) Dietrich, supra note 3, at 350. (44) See, e.g., Kai N. Lee, Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment (1993). (45) Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act (Northwest Power Act), Pub. L. No. 96-501, 94 Stat. 2697 (1980) (codified at 16 U.S.C. [subsections] 839-839h (1994)). (46) 16 U.S.C. [sections] 839b (1994). (47) See supra note 5. (48) As early as 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt admonished Oregon and Washington to cooperate in meaningful regulation to protect the fishery. Dietrich, supra note 3, at 335. The coordination problems continue. See generally Colloquium, Who Runs the River?, 25 Envtl. L. 349 (1995). (49) Dietrich, supra note 3, at 350 (quoting Bonneville Power Administrator Randy Hardy). At a recent colloquium focusing on the Columbia River, Will Whelan, Deputy Attorney General of Idaho, suggested that every interested party would answer the question of "Who runs the River?" in "the same way: The other guy runs the river, and he is screwing it up." Will Whelan, Idaho's Strategy in Idaho Department of Fish & Game v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 25 Envtl. L. 399, 399 (1995). (50) Idaho Dep't of Fish & Game v. National Marine Fisheries Serv., 850 F. Supp. 886, 900 (D. Or. 1994). (51) Northwest Passage is the first comprehensive historical text on the Columbia for the layperson since the 1950s. See Stewart holbrook, The Columbia (1956). (52) See Robert Clark, River of the West: Stories from the Columbia (1995); Robin Cody, Voyage of a Summer Sun: Canoeing the Columbia River (1995). (53) See Colloquium, Who Runs the River?, 25 Envtl. L. 349, 424 (1995) (comment of John Smith, member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, pleading for the various interest groups to find common ground in addressing the salmon crisis).
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Author:Carlough, Leslie A.
Publication:Environmental Law
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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