The Future of Our Rivers
Do You Love River Life? Help protect it for the future
“If a man fails to honor the rivers, he shall not gain the life from them.” ~Code of Hammurabi 1772 B.C.
Rolling rapids that make you giggle, refreshing dips in the river, canyon walls bathed in soft light, the majesty of bighorn sheep at the river’s edge: these are a few of the sacred experiences that a river trip provides. These small-yet-powerful experiences are the reasons why we fall in love with the rivers we run, and the reasons that we come back. Now, imagine if the rapids were buried by dams, the water was too polluted to enjoy, and the wildlife was scarce. This devastating scene is what our rivers could look like without the relentless conservation efforts of river enthusiasts, conservationists and river protection agencies. Without them, river life as we know it would be non-existent.
History of River Conservation in the West
The three rivers that we run today, the Snake river in Hells Canyon, the Lower Salmon, and the Grande Ronde, have not always been protected resources. Historically, the integrity of these rivers have been threatened by industrial interests, pollution, and dam projects.
One of the most controversial dam projects in U.S. history was proposed in 1958 on the Snake River in Hells Canyon. The Pacific Northwest Power Company aimed to build a dam located a few miles above the confluence of the Snake and Salmon rivers. The ambitious project, called the High Mountain Sheep Dam, was set to rise 670 feet above the riverbed of the Snake, so tall that fish passage would be impossible and anadromous fish runs in Hells Canyon would disappear. The dam would have buried the wild waters of Hells Canyon as we know it in a 50-mile long reservoir. However, competing dam proposals from the Washington Public Power Supply System and the Department of the Interior delayed the construction of the High Mountain Sheep Dam. The Pacific Northwest Power Company fought legal battles for the construction of the dam that led all the way up to the Supreme Court.
As the legal battles for dam construction made headlines, concern for the future of Hells Canyon caught public interest. By the 1960’s, the environmental movement was on the rise and big industrial projects that threatened wild places started to become unpopular among the American public. The growing interest in environmental conservation and outdoor recreation swayed the Supreme Court to rule in favor of neither dam proposals, and instead rule in the favor of public interest. Ultimately, the dam was not constructed, but the movement to protect the Snake River in Hells Canyon did not stop there. The efforts to save this segment of river from damming inspired President Gerald Ford to designate Hells Canyon as a National Recreation Area in 1975, so that no industrial threat could endanger Hells Canyon in the future.
The fight to save Hells Canyon inspired a legacy of conservation efforts and birthed a generation of senators who put environmentalism at the core of their policies. These environmentally conscious senators helped usher in the Wild and Scenic Rivers act of 1968. This groundbreaking legislation legally recognized rivers as valuable in their natural state. The act honors rivers for their “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values,” and protects them in their wild condition. Today, the Grande Ronde and Hells Canyon are designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers. The Lower Salmon, however, is not protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and is one of the reasons you will see private housing and remote roads along the riverside.
Unfortunately, big wins for conservation often come at a big cost for caretakers of the land. The designation of Hells Canyon as a National Recreation Area forced out the ranchers and homesteaders whose livelihoods depended on the land. The rich history of homesteading in Hells Canyon can still be seen today in the form of hay barns, homes, and farming equipment that were left behind. However, their long legacy of land stewardship continues today. Ranchers are still permitted to graze their cattle in certain sections of Hells Canyon, a practice that has existed in the canyon for hundreds of years. Their holistic grazing practices promote the growth of native bunch grasses, which are important to maintaining biodiversity in the region. The rancher’s love and care for the land continues to be an integral part of land management in Hells Canyon today.
Current Conservation Issues
Although we have seen some great wins in the history of river conservation, we still have a lot of work to do if we want to keep our rivers protected for the future. Our rivers are constantly in jeopardy from private industrial interests. Even if a river is protected, its tributaries may not be, making the protected river vulnerable to industrial threats upstream.
This is the case with the Stibnite Gold Project, proposed earlier this year on the South Fork Salmon. Midas Gold, a Canadian mining company, plans to create one of the nation’s largest gold mines, located on the headwaters of the South Fork Salmon. The South Fork Salmon flows into the Main Salmon River and connects to the majority of the Salmon River Watershed. If completed, the mine will leach toxic sludge into the South Fork. Much of the commercially run stretch of the Salmon, including the beloved lower salmon where we run trips, is downstream on the South Fork confluence and will suffer from the pollution. New private interests like the Stibnite Gold Project are why we must be vigilant in our advocacy for clean and free-flowing rivers. You can learn more about the Mining Project and take action to stop it here: Save the South Fork Salmon.
Who Benefits from River Conservation?
River conservation does not only benefit us river rats. The wildlife and biodiversity that are unique to river corridors are also enjoyed by hunters and anglers. River conservation not only protects the water, but also the land around it, allowing wildlife a space to thrive. On the rivers we run, the surrounding canyons are popular among hunters for its wide range of game, from small pheasants known as chukars to big game such as elk and bighorn sheep. River corridors provide wildlife protection from harsh weather, and allow them to access food and water in the scarcity of winter. Keeping our river corridors protected is critical to maintaining healthy ecosystems so that the long tradition of hunting in these areas can survive.
River conservation is also critically important to anglers who rely on healthy fish populations. Historically, our native fish populations have suffered from the introduction of dams and industrial pollution in our rivers. River conservation prevents the construction of new dams, which allows fish safe passage and protection from predators, and sets clean water standards so that fish are safe to eat.
These conservation efforts are particularly important to indigenous groups such as the Nez Perce, who have fished the waters of the Snake and Salmon for thousands of years. Fish harvesting has long been an important part of Nez Perce diet and culture. However, historically important native fish such as salmon and steelhead are currently listed as threatened or endangered. Clean and free-flowing rivers are critically important to conserving these populations that have long been culturally significant to the Nez Perce. Safeguarding the treaty rights and fishing practices of indigenous groups is yet another reason why river conservation is so important in our area.
Champions of Conservation
Victories in river conservation would not be possible without the relentless work of non-profit groups like American Whitewater and the Western Rivers Conservancy. These organizations advocate for the health of our rivers, and help keep them in public hands for public use. Without them, our rivers would not be the pristine and remote wilderness landscapes that we enjoy today.
At Winding Waters River Expeditions, we have developed a partnership with the Western Rivers Conservancy. Every year we donate the proceeds from our Music for Wild Places trips to their cause. Their work depends on funding from people who love rivers and care about their health and protection for the future. If you are interested in keeping this important work going, you can donate here: Western Rivers Conservancy, American Whitewater.
Other than advocacy work, one of the best ways to protect our river corridors is to use them! Being a river recreationist is a means of conserving them as wild places. The more people who develop a connection with these rivers, the more likely we are to keep them protected. So, invite your friends and extended family on a trip, and share these beautiful places with those you love. Come and enjoy what the long legacy of river conservation has to offer.