I fell in love with newspaper reporting 16 years ago, when I was a high school student in Seattle. I listened to Robert L. Jamieson Jr., a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, describe his craft and I’ve remembered it ever since.
Beat reporting, he said, was like plucking coins off the sidewalk. He was always hunting for anecdotes, quotes, sources, facts, ideas, injustices, triumphs and issues that revealed larger truths about ourselves. He never found many sitting at his desk, and he stashed his best finds in the back of his mind like coins in his pocket.
I am leaving my job at the Idaho Mountain Express at the end of this month and concluding a 12-year career as a newspaper reporter. This will be my last column, so I want to share with you the quotes that have stuck with me longest.
I am sharing these stories because I still believe in our capacity to change. I still believe in the power of language, journalism and collective action to inspire hope, to recognize truths and to inform the decisions we must make to determine our future.
To me, the enduring symbol of the Pacific Northwest is the Columbia River salmon. The basin is the approximate size of France, and few things tie together the disparate landscapes that make up my native home better than the salmon.
Salmon serve as a cornerstone to sustaining life in river ecosystems, bringing ocean-borne nutrients hundreds of miles upriver in their migrations. They’re food for lifeforms as varied as orcas, grizzly bears and people, and supply nitrogen for trees to grow on riverbanks.
Few people know the story of the salmon’s downward spiral on the Columbia better than Michele DeHart, who has been director of the Fish Passage Center since its founding in 1984.
The center monitors the migration and returns of juvenile and adult salmon on the Columbia River and its tributaries. It has tracked data that demonstrate how the major hydroelectric projects and scores of other, smaller dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have contributed to salmon mortality.
It is grim accounting. The historical population ranged from 10 million to 16 million adults returning annually. In 2018, just 665,000 adults returned to spawn.
I sought out Michele in 2007, when I was a journalism student in college, to understand the salmon’s decline. In just shy of 40 words, she provided the answer.
Her reply posed a greater question: Why do we allow the salmon to limp along on life support while we vociferously defend the idea that the status quo—or small tweaks to the status quo—will reverse the decline?
The system supports hundreds of billions of dollars of economic production. If the Columbia River is supposed to be a balancing act, we have a boulder on our side on the scale and pebbles on the salmon’s side. We delude ourselves into believing that we’re moving toward balance.
It took me years to fully understand why.
I drove to George’s ranch on a hot, dry day in one of the hottest, driest periods California had experienced in centuries. My time as a Californian, from December 2011 to September 2014, coincided with the worst drought to hit the state in more than 1,200 years.
George was 75 when I met him for an interview. He lived by himself on a remote corner of Lake Berryessa, a manmade reservoir in eastern Napa County created in the 1950s with the construction of Monticello Dam.
George knew the history of the area well, because his father ranched in the Berryessa Valley before it was flooded. The valley was an agricultural treasure, with the same soils—but a hotter weather pattern— as the world-famous Napa Valley wine-growing region just 20 miles away.
All that was lost decades ago. In the 20th century, California created the most ambitious public works project in the history of the world through its system of dams, reservoirs, hydropower plants, canals, tunnels and other structures, all for the purpose of moving water from the north end of the state to the south.
The drought punished that system and revealed its fragility, while killing millions of trees and pushing several fish species and salmon runs on the Sacramento River nearer to extinction.
I forgive George for his pessimism, because I have shared that sentiment many times since. Thinking of how I might miss the worst of what’s to come has been an easy respite against the onslaught of worsening news regarding our environment and climate change.
It’s an attitude that makes delay palatable and the cost of change seem exorbitant. It makes the status quo acceptable.
I appreciated Russ’ honesty when I interviewed him two years ago. As a fisheries scientist with decades of experience on salmon recovery in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest, including the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers, he understands the challenges we face better than anyone.
We were discussing the problems facing the Big Wood River and restoring some of its lost habitat and ecosystem function, but his statement holds true for a broader range of environmental problems.
I have found that honest reckonings are the basis for the most meaningful changes. We must get honest about how much future climate warming we can and want to prevent, because more warming is inevitable.
As a result, some efforts to turn this tide away from environmental catastrophe will be met with failure. Lines in the sand will necessarily shift over time as we reconsider what can be saved.
I am willing to fight, because this world is still worth saving.