Friday, July 6, 2012

The Dawn of Dam Removal

In honor of HCPC's inception, winning the fight to stop the final damming of the Snake River in Hells Canyon, we bring you an essay by former Secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbit.

The Dawn of Dam Removal

Bruce Babbitt
Early Fall 2012

When I began considering dam removal, the Elwha River quickly emerged at the top of my list. The river flows through the heart of Olympic National Park. It once hosted the most prolific salmon runs in the Northwest. And the tiny amount of electricity from the dams could easily be replaced from other sources.

I went to the Olympic Peninsula to take a look. Sure enough, it seemed the perfect place to begin. The two dams down near the mouth of the river appeared completely out of place in the splendor of the great old-growth forests. I convened a press conference to announce a new era of dam removal, beginning here at the Elwha River.

And then all hell broke loose. Washington State’s senior senator angrily condemned the idea, vowing, as ranking member of the Department of Interior Appropriations Committee, to put an end to such nonsense. Other members of the congressional delegation chimed in, in opposition. Newspaper editorials ridiculed the plan.

A few weeks later President Clinton took me aside, looking somewhat bemused, and asked, “Bruce, what is all this stuff about tearing down dams?”  His innocent-sounding question was really a cautionary admonition. Our administration was already caught up in a bitter and politically costly controversy over the spotted owl and logging of old-growth forests in the Northwest. Friends reminded me that cabinet secretaries who stir up too much controversy can and do lose their jobs. The Elwha project would have to go on the back burner for a while.

That public opinion was flooding in against us was hardly surprising. Back then, tearing down dams to restore rivers seemed a capricious idea dreamed up by another meddling bureaucrat. Why tear down perfectly good dams?

We quietly set about rebuilding our case. Within the Department of the Interior we began preparing an environmental impact statement loaded with cost estimates, hydrologic computations, sediment studies, fish mortality statistics and regional economic impacts. However, of all the arguments thrown up against dam removal, the most effective was simply, “It won’t work. The salmon have been gone for a hundred years. What makes you think they’ll return?”

Somehow, somewhere, we had to demonstrate that fish do come back. We needed to show and tell – with a small dam, built within recent memory, surrounded by a friendly community that actually remembered the fish runs and their importance to the community.

And finally we found a candidate, at the other end of the country on a little-known river on the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina. 

It turned out that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was already quietly at work on the Neuse River where a small diversion dam built in 1952 near the mouth had killed off one of the most prolific spawning runs of American shad, herring and stripers on the Atlantic Coast. A power company had built the Quaker Neck Dam to draw water for cooling, and it was perfectly feasible to design an alternate intake method.

On a clear winter day in 1997, we assembled on the river bank. I took a few swings at the concrete with a sledgehammer, and a wrecking ball finished the job. By springtime, fish were swarming up the river, passing through Raleigh 70 miles upstream.

The success at Quaker Neck brought national press and began to turn public opinion. Across the country local communities came up with proposals, and dams began to come down – at Kennebec in Maine, along the Baraboo River in Wisconsin, the Rogue River in Oregon, and the Butte and Clear Creeks in California.
With public opinion now moving our way, nationally and in the Northwest, we ratcheted up our efforts in Congress to finish off the Elwha dams. Slowly, at what seemed a glacial pace, funding started to flow, finally coming to fruition in the Obama administration.

In the space of two decades, dam removal has evolved from a novelty to an accepted means of river restoration. Most importantly, the concept has taken root in hundreds of local communities as residents rediscover their rivers, their history, and the potential not only to restore natural systems, but, in the process, to renew their communities as well.

I am asked, “After Elwha, what is your next priority?” That’s like asking, “What is my favorite national park?” My answer tends to vary depending on what I have been reading and where I have been hiking most recently. But my nomination would be the four dams – Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite – that have transformed the great Snake River in western Washington into a slack-water barge channel, destroying thousands of miles of salmon habitat in the Rocky Mountains and driving four salmon species to the brink of extinction.

Others will have their own compelling priorities – and there are still 75,000 dams for consideration.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Circling back to Wallowa County with HCPC

After three wonderful years in La Grande, I recently moved back to Wallowa County for the summer. Now that I’m back, it’s very rewarding to see the many ways that HCPC’s work, past and present, helps to improve the lives of many people here in Wallowa County.

I recently bumped into a friend of mine that I haven’t seen for about three years on the streets of Joseph. I used to work for him when I was a naturalist/guide for Wallowa Resources Elderhostel program some years back. We were catching up and he told me that he was working as a Wilderness Ranger in the Eagle Cap and was on his way up to check Wilderness signs at a few remote trailheads. I knew that HCPC had been able to direct some money to the Forest Service in order to fund a Wilderness Ranger position in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. If you like that kind of work, it’s hard to find a better job.

There used to be a lot more Wilderness Rangers than there are today and they are sorely needed to help maintain trailheads, clear trails, and to help with restoration and invasive plant removal. HCPC was able to fund this position, with the potential to last for a decade, as a result of our settlement agreement on the Boardman Power Plant. The Boardman Power Plant burns coal and pollutes the skies of the Eagle Cap and Hells Canyon Wilderness areas, not to mention our own communities. I even heard that mercury has been found in the fish in some high elevation Wilderness lakes. HCPC’s work has helped to result in a reduction and eventual stop to this coal-burning plant’s pollution of our environment, while leveraging good jobs in our community.

It’s very inspiring and eye-opening to see how HCPC’s historic work of preventing the damming of Hells Canyon continues to change lives and create new opportunities for people. Some of my neighbors are hard at work this time of year guiding dozens and dozens of people down the areas many beautiful rivers. It amazes me to think of all the sustainable jobs generated through the rafting industry, and all the people that connect with the awesome Hells Canyon ecosystem by floating through it on the Snake River. And the river rafting industry seems more vibrant today than ever, attesting to the sustainability of rafting and the desire of people to be out in nature.

The fundamental accomplishment of saving Hells Canyon forever changed Wallowa County and it’s nowhere more evident than in the composition of the local communities. I know many of these remarkable people would not be in Wallowa County today were it not for the work of HCPC. I am really thankful that they are here.

David Mildrexler, Ecosystem Conservation Coordinator, Hells Canyon Preservation Council

Friday, June 8, 2012

HCPC welcomes summer intern Joshua Axelrod

My family moved to La Grande in the late summer heat of 1988, rounding the bend out of Ladd Canyon and catching our first glimpse of Mt. Emily’s iconic profile dominating the distance.  Though my parents were moving to take jobs at EOSC, it was our first time in Eastern Oregon, our weary eyes looking out across the Grande Ronde Valley at the end of a cross-country adventure that took us from the rolling, humid hills of Southern Ohio, across the Great Plains, over the Rockies, and into a piece of the world we had yet to know.  Over the next 13 years, I came to know and love the hills and mountains of Eastern Oregon in ways I cannot imagine knowing any other place.  Spring was spent wandering in search of morels, summer was spent discovering the high places deep within the Wallowa Mountains or tramping through the woods in search of the ever-elusive “large” huckleberry, in fall we waited for the snow, and in the winter we slid around on skis through the silent, frozen woods near Spout Springs, around Anthony Lakes, and near Salt Creek Summit.  By the time I graduated from LHS in 2001, Eastern Oregon had left a deep imprint on my understanding and view of the world.  It had instilled in me a deep desire to protect the natural world so that future generations might be able confront it with the same sense of wonder that all of us who grew up with the Blue Mountains out our backdoor were able to do without even realizing what a gift we had so easily within our reach.

Josh (red bandana) and his dad crossing a snow bridge above Hurricane Creek, July 2011.
After high school, I spent four formative years at Middlebury College in central Vermont.  There, surrounded by the entirely different beauty of the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks looming just across Lake Champlain, my feelings about the importance of preserving the few remaining wild places left in this world occupied more and more of my thinking. Since that time, life has taken me back to Oregon where I lived and worked in Portland for two years, back across the country to Boston where I lived and worked for three years, and finally, south to Washington, DC where my wife and I decided to take the graduate school plunge together.

Josh (right), his younger brother Ezra, and his dad in the hills above La Grande, Christmas 2011.
At the Washington College of Law at American University, I am trying my best to honor my rationale for returning to school to pursue my legal degree.  I am a member of the editorial board of the Sustainable Development Law and Policy publication, a member of the Environmental Law Society, and hope to continue to focus my studies on environmental law and policy.  It is hard to believe that my legal pursuits have brought me back to Eastern Oregon to spend the summer as a legal intern with the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, but I suppose life is full of these wonderfully unexpected twists and turns.  This is the first professional experience I have ever had in a place that I feel a passionate connection to, and I hope that in the next two months I am able to make a positive and substantial contribution to HCPC’s ongoing conservation efforts in what is truly one of the most remarkable corners of the world.

Friday, May 25, 2012

HCPC and Allies Await Approval for a Settlement Agreement Requiring DEQ to Re-Examine Controversial Mining Practice

In the spring of 2010, we urged our members to comment on the Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) new draft permit for regulating suction dredge mining throughout Oregon (the "700PM permit"). A suction dredge is a gasoline-powered vacuum attached to a floating sluice box. Miners use the vacuum to suck up the bottom of streams and rivers and run sediment through the sluice to filter out gold and then dump the sediment back into the stream.

Fishermen and clean water advocates are concerned about the negative effects suction dredge mining can have on fish and aquatic habitat quality.  This mining practice kills fish eggs and offspring thereby reducing fish spawning success, deposits fine sediment on stream bottoms, mobilizes toxic heavy metals and harms macro-invertebrate communities that are an essential part of the aquatic food web.

Because of these negative impacts, HCPC joined a coalition of other conservation groups in January 2011 to challenge DEQ's final 700PM permit in state court for violating state and federal water quality laws.  Over the past several months, however, our coalition has been working to secure a settlement agreement with DEQ that would allow us to dismiss our lawsuit by requiring the agency to re-open the discussion about this controversial mining practice to the public. 
Last week we reached such an agreement.  If approved by the Court, our settlement would require DEQ to robustly examine ways to revise the 700PM permit to ensure compliance with water quality laws and adequately protect fish and their habitat.  Unfortunately, the Eastern Oregon Miners' Association, which intervened as a party to the lawsuit, filed questionable motions that are delaying and threaten to interfere with the Court's approval of our agreement.  We're hopeful these motions can be resolved shortly so we can continue moving forward.

Oregon’s statewide Clean Water Act permits are usually renewed on a five-year basis. The next version of the suction dredging permit should be finalized by July 2014. The settlement agreement outlines a stakeholder process beginning in December 2012 to initiate the next permit renewal.  Based on the settlement, the permit renewal process will consider prohibited areas based on water pollution, fish habitat and specially designated areas, whether to require annual reports and the cost of this activity to the state, among other items. 

The number of suction dredges in Oregon has increased dramatically in recent years.  Permits from the Department of State Lands (DSL) have increased nearly 300% from 656 in 2007 to 2,209 in 2011. DEQ permit registrations in the last two years also show that nearly 30% of suction dredge miners are coming from other states to mine Oregon’s streams and rivers.  This likely includes a sizable number of out-of-state miners that used to go to California to dredge before our neighboring state put a dredging moratorium in place until 2016.  This trend is a serious threat to our streams, rivers and fisheries.

Plaintiffs in this case were represented by the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center ("PEAC").  HCPC's co-plaintiffs include the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Rogue Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Oregon Coast Alliance and Oregon Wild.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Of Killdeer, Camas, and the Travel Management Plan

I recently worked with a volunteer from the Birdathon, printing small photos of habitat for kids to use in one of the hands-on learning projects Birdathon volunteers offer.  I started thinking about habitat - that conjunction of space/food/water/shelter/structure that allows a species to live there.

It's hard not to notice the killdeer trying to occupy the gravel right-of-way along a back road.  They can't nest there, between the tires and the cats and dogs and horses and bicycles.  The seasonally scrubbed gravel beds along and in the river are mostly gone.  I sometimes fantasize that we could take all the flat roofs on the downtown buildings, add a shallow gravel layer with a little silt for occasional native grasses, and create some of the nesting area that is now subdivisions and streets and straight narrow ditches.  It would take creativity and commitment and a great deal of buy-in from people who probably mostly don't care about the nesting needs of killdeer. 

It would have been so much easier to keep a few gravel ridges and sandbars along the river and major creeks, instead of subverting the natural riverine shapes and patterns to the straight and narrow of the Army Corps of Engineers.  Human convenience, thoughtlessness and arrogance trumped the needs of other species.   It would now take a great deal of money and time and effort to rebuild one gravel ridge or sandbar.  

One of the reasons I support HCPC is that it works to protect the places that do still exist - public lands where wildlife can still find the habitat they need, knowing that it is so much more reasonable (and affordable)  to preserve than to have to rebuild.  And HCPC works to rebuild and restore habitat as well, knowing that we need to repair damage that has been done.  

This is clear in the recent Travel Management Plan for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.  I'm so proud of HCPC advocating for the protection of elk calving grounds from motorized disturbance, for the protection of high wet meadows from destructive and careless cross-country rutting by off-roaders, for the protection of roadless areas from new roads, and for the closure of excess old roads that were supposed to be closed down a decade ago.   

I recently followed the Mt. Emily Road, looking for wildflowers and enjoying the abundance of blooms and silence and birdsong.   It didn't take long though before I saw the terrible damage left by off-road vehicles tearing across a wet meadow.  The ruts were deep, hard set, and showed as dark brown scars bereft of any green in the midst of wildflowers.    In another case the damage went straight up a steep hillside that was now eroding badly.  There were roads around, a LOT of roads - going off both sides from the Mt. Emily road.  There was no need to go where these ruts went, in one case just cutting a corner between the main road and another side road.   

I started thinking about how long it would take for those ruts to heal.  Since we can still see the ruts from wagon wheels over 100 years ago, without our help such wounds last a long time.  Wouldn't it be better not to make them in the first place?     


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wild Places, Roads and Freedom

From the edge of the road:  Looking into the roadless.  Photo by Brian Kelly

It’s been pretty noisy around northeast Oregon lately.  As the US Forest Service tries to deal with motorized use of public lands, objections have been heard from people who have become accustomed to being able to drive just about anywhere they please.  The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest has more than nine thousand miles of roads, many of them left over from old logging projects.  Over much of the National Forest, you are currently allowed to drive off the roads and across country if you feel like it.

Some folks seem to view the Forest Service travel planning process as a restriction of their freedom and access to public lands.  Of course, when four-wheel-drive vehicles and ATVs drive unrestricted across the landscape then wildlife habitat is degraded, water quality suffers and weeds spread across the countryside.  The peaceful beauty that people seek on public wild lands can become diminished by the impacts of the users.

What about our freedom?  Well, two of America’s greatest conservationists wrote about freedom in describing their relationship with the natural world.

“What avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Aldo Leopold wrote these powerful words.  While of course we all need roads to access wild places, at a certain point the presence of a road itself diminishes the very character of the wild place that we seek.  The place where the road ends and the blank spot begins is a special place indeed.   You will find wildlife, old forests, and clean waters when you find the blank spots on the map.

Here are the words of John Muir:

“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Following his description of freedom in the mountains, John Muir added this next sentence:

“As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.”

It’s striking to me that rather than complaining about not being allowed to drive a Model T Ford across the forest as he grew older, John Muir chose to rejoice in the enjoyment of nature.

He was a very wise man and a free man as well.

~Brian Kelly

Monday, May 7, 2012

Analysis confirms Wallowa-Whitman Travel Plan Decision leaves plenty of access

It is very important that we use this pause in the Travel Plan Process to better understand what the now withdrawn Decision would have actually done. One of the most common claims put forth against the Travel Plan Decision was that the Forest Service was taking away access to the Forest. Some even claimed that the Forest Service was using the Travel Plan to “lock them out” of the National Forest.

If there were any truth to these claims, HCPC would be very concerned. How are people supposed to cultivate the life-long connections to the National Forestlands that are ultimately necessary to encourage and advocate for better stewardship of these ecosystems, if people can’t connect with them in the first place? So let’s take a close look and see for ourselves what this Decision would do.

With our partners, we performed a GIS analysis based on the Selected Alternative Layer (i.e. the now withdrawn Decision). All open motor vehicle roads and trails are mapped in red. We put a one-mile buffer around all open motor vehicle roads and trails so we could visually see how many places on the National Forest could be accessed in less than one-miles distance from the nearest road, a modest distance. These areas are mapped in grey. If an area is further than one mile from a road, it is mapped in light green. Wilderness is in dark green.

The results graphically illustrate that outside Wilderness areas, nearly the entire National Forest is within one mile of a road. The few small islands that are further than one-mile from a road are usually inside Inventoried Roadless Areas (mapped in black crosshatch). These are very small islands, and based on a visual assessment, it appears that the Decision would not leave anywhere outside designated Wilderness further than two miles from an open road. It’s important to note that the map does not show the areas within Wilderness areas that are less than one-mile from a road. If it did, you could see that much of the North Fork John Day Wilderness would be grey color, and a surprisingly large part of the Eagle Cap Wilderness as well.

These results clearly show that the Forest Service strived to provide very widespread access to the entire Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in their Travel Plan Decision. In our opinion, the Decision did not go far enough to protect roadless areas, old growth forests, critical elk habitat areas, and fragile aquatic environments from the damages of motorized vehicles. We encourage the Forest Service to use this opportunity to strengthen the Travel Plan in these key natural resource areas.

As HCPC stated in our press release on the withdrawal of the Wallowa-Whitman Travel Management Plan, and as is clearly illustrated in the analysis above, there is no validity in the claims that people will no longer have access to the Forest. Moreover, the Travel Plan is not just about access, but also about protection of natural resources and the costs of maintaining the designated road system. As I stated in my editorial
(, what’s really at stake is the quality of the National Forest's we will be accessing.

David Mildrexler, Ecosystem Conservation Coordinator, Hells Canyon Preservation Council

Monday, April 16, 2012

Of Truth and Boots

Wow. Been a very long week. Hard not to talk about the Wallowa-Whitman Travel Plan, with all the terrible misinformation going around. Reminds me of the saying that a lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on.
Truth and facts seem to be badly outnumbered by imagined outrages and fictional claims.
For the record:
No, logging will not be shut down by the Travel Plan - it will not be hampered by this Decision.
No, the forest will not be locked away - over 4,000 miles of roads will remain open.
No, the process of reaching this Decision did not shut out the public - it involved years of public participation and comments.
No, the process does not ignore different viewpoints - the Travel Plan includes new trails for off road vehicles (as much as I don't want that).
No, not all "locals" are against it. I'm local and I'm for an even stronger Travel Management Plan.
No, the Wallowa-Whitman is not a county or even a state forest - it is a National forest, held in trust not just for us locals, but for the nation; not just for this generation, but for the future as well.

The Travel Plan Decision is a compromise that addresses the concerns of all stakeholders with a moderate response to the need for travel management. It will close down some roads - mostly old, overgrown, eroded, or duplicate roads that would be too expensive to repair. It does include some protection for much-needed wildlife "security habitat" and some protection for streams with runs of native fish.

The Travel Plan doesn't go nearly as far as it needs to for wildlife, fisheries, and native plants. Still, I accept that both science and politics are at play, and the Forest Service has done the best it can to respond to all interests.

What I do not accept is the false portrayals of the issues that I see and hear in almost all venues, from town halls to local papers to neighborhood gossip.

Lies, even unintentional ones, do not make a good basis for decisions.

Now, on to the news that the seasonal progression of wildflowers is starting to unroll, bluebirds are back on Cricket Flats, and a sandhill crane was spotted out in the fields by Indian Creek (south of Elgin). Ospreys are back on the nest by Willow Creek and on Woodell Road, and curlews are in the fields north of La Grande.

Back to enjoying this wonderful place where we live -

Danae Yurgel

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Perverse Logic of Wolf Hunts

The Predator Persecution Complex


The hysteria that surrounds wolf management in the Rockies has clouded rational discussion. Wolves are hardly a threat to either hunting opportunity or the livestock industry.


For instance, the Wyoming Fish and Game reports: “The Department continues to manage to reduce Wyoming’s elk numbers. The total population of the herds with estimates increased by 16 percent in 2009 and is now 29 percent above the statewide objective of 83,640 animals.”

Things are similar in Montana. Populations have grown from an estimated 89,000 animals in 1992 prior to wolf recovery to 140,000-150,000 animals in recent years.

In Idaho we find a similar trend. According to the IDFG 23 out of 29 elk units are at and/or above objective. Hunter success in 2011 was 20%: one in five hunters killed an elk.

Wolves are clearly not a threat to the future of hunting in any of these states.


Ranchers are equally irrational. In 2010 Wyoming livestock producers lost 41,000 cattle and calves due to weather, predators, digestive problems, respiratory issues, calving and other problems. But total livestock losses attributed to wolves was 26 cattle and 33 sheep!

Last year Montana livestock producers lost more than 140,000 cattle and sheep to all causes. But total livestock losses attributed to wolves was less than a hundred animals.

In 2010 Idaho cattle producers lost 93,000 animals to all causes. Respiratory problems were the largest cause accounting for 25.6 percent of the cattle lost. Next came digestive problems, accounting for 13.4 percent of the cattle deaths. Total cattle losses attributed to wolves was 75 animals.

To suggest that wolves are a threat to the livestock industry borders on absurdity.


Worse yet, the persecution of predators does not work to reduce even these minimum conflicts as most proponents of wolf control suggest.

The reason indiscriminate killing does not work is because it ignores the social ecology of predators. Wolves, cougars, and other predators are social animals. As such, any attempt to control them that does not consider their “social ecology” is likely to fail. Look at the century old war on coyotes—we kill them by the hundreds of thousands, yet ranchers continue to complain about how these predators are destroying their industry. And the usual response assumes that if we only kill a few more we’ll finally get the coyote population “under control.”

The problem with indiscriminate killing of predators whether coyotes, wolves, cougars or bears is that it creates social chaos. Wolves, in particular, learn how and where to hunt, and what to hunt from their elders. The older pack members help to raise the young. In heavily hunted (or trapped) wolf populations (or other predators), the average age is skewed towards younger age animals . Young wolves are like teenagers—bold, brash, and inexperienced. Wolf populations with a high percentage of young animals are much more likely to attack easy prey—like livestock and/or venture into places that an older, more experience animal might avoid—like the fringes of a town or someone’s backyard.

Furthermore, wolf packs that are continuously fragmented byhuman-caused mortality are less stable. They are less able to hold on to established territories which means they are often hunting in unfamiliar haunts and thus less able to find natural prey. Result : they are more likely to kill livestock.

Wolf packs that are hunted also tend to have fewer members. With fewer adults to hunt, and fewer adults to guard a recent kill against other scavengers, a small pack must actually kill more prey than a larger pack. Thus hunting wolves actually contributes to a higher net loss of elk and deer than if packs were left alone and more stable.

Finally hunting is just a lousy way to actually deal with individual problematic animals. Most hunting takes place on the large blocks of public land, not on the fringes of towns and/or on private ranches where the majority of conflicts occur. In fact, hunting often removes the very animals that have learned to avoid human conflicts and pose no threat to livestock producers or human safety. By indiscriminately removing such animals which would otherwise maintain the territory, hunting creates a void that, often as not, may be filled by a pack of younger, inexperienced animals that could and do cause conflicts.


We need a different paradigm for predator management than brute force. As Albert Einstein noted, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Unfortunately insanity has replaced rational thought when it comes to wolf management.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist with among others, a degree in wildlife biology, and is a former Montana hunting guide. He has published 35 books.