Our Way of Life is Endangering the Salmon

Seattle Times

To keep every cog and wheel,” Aldo Leopold wrote in Round River, “is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Over the next year, the people of the Pacific Northwest have an opportunity to test that wisdom. On March 9, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) declared its intent to place several populations of chinook salmon on the endangered species list. If nothing happens between now and next March to change the service’s mind, those populations will become officially protected by the Endangered Species Act, a prospect viewed with uniform dread in this region of the country.

Unlike the northern spotted owl, the chinook salmon’s habitat is interlaced with most of the developed portion of Puget Sound, including the city of Seattle. Restoring and protecting every individual run — keeping every cog and wheel — will present an unprecedented challenge for this area s inhabitants. Surmounting this challenge involves the resolution of a perplexing paradox: To save the Northwest way of life we have enjoyed in this region for so many years, a way of life in which salmon play a significant role, we must change the way we live.

This region is not the first to encounter an endangered species in its back yard, of course. The ESA has forced many urban areas to slow and redirect their growth, and find ways to share the land with other species. In Austin, Texas, for example, two species of birds triggered a 10- year search for a viable conservation plan: in San Diego, Calif., 85 species of animals and plants that inhabit an endangered ecosystem, the coastal sage scrub, have compelled the county and local governments to find enough land to protect the viability of the species while leaving room for Southern California s inexorable growth; in Maine and Oregon, state-led efforts to conserve populations of Atlantic (Maine) and coho (Oregon) salmon have convinced NMFS to keep them off the endangered list, giving those efforts an opportunity to prove their worth.

From Florida to New York to Northern California, endangered species and economic growth are competing for the same space, and urban dwellers are discovering that conservation is not something that just happens in logging towns and other far-away places.

Not all of these efforts have been successful, and a few have become mired in a quagmire of legal battles. Yet the waxing and waning of their fortunes provide the people of Puget Sound with some valuable lessons. Here are three:

Good science is necessary, but isn’t sufficient: Any effort to bring the salmon back must be built on a solid foundation of biological science. For example, knowing the relative contributions of hydropower operations or logging, which we can control, versus ocean conditions, which we cannot, is a crucial first step in crafting an effective plan of action.

Expanding and refining our scientific understanding of salmon is an open-ended quest, and efforts to restore salmon must proceed even as we continue to gather better information. All the scientific information in the world, however, cannot provide us with the answers to many of the hard choices ahead. Science provides information of the ecologically possible, but cannot indicate which among many possibilities is the best.

A strong effort to restore salmon runs in Puget Sound, for example, will require restrictions on dams, agriculture, development, manufacturing, forestry and so forth. The severity of the sacrifices does not rule them out, of course. But it is beyond the realm of ecology and ecologists to declare which sacrifices are most worthwhile.

It is the Northwest way of life that endangers the salmon, not some design flaw in dams or a lack of ecological understanding. Political leaders and decision makers must resist the siren lure of invoking the “best” science, and face the hard choices themselves.

Let economics and politics in the front door or they will find their way through the back door: It is a mistake, many people believe, to allow economic and political considerations into environmental debates. Economic and political forces drove the salmon towards extinction; why should anyone let them subvert the plan for pulling them back from the brink?

Denying economics and politics a seat at the table, however, does nothing to resolve the differences among economic and political interests. Too often, efforts to save endangered species have begun with a team of scientists producing a “biologically-preferred” plan of action. But biology has no preferences and such plans are invariably laced with economic and political judgments, hidden under the rubric of the “best science.” With any other considerations discouraged or even banished, the only room for disagreement is over the science. Each side is then tempted to promote their interests by pushing science to the extremes.

It would be so much easier to motivate people if saving the salmon was indeed the only possible course of action. Economics and politics are superfluous if any other choice brings the collapse of Northwest civilization, a contention we are likely to hear over the next year as negotiations heat up. This picture of the future is as absurd as one that says: “Don t worry, there are plenty of salmon in Alaska.”

Our political leaders must face a citizenry that has grown comfortable with a way of life that had it both ways, salmon and prosperity, or so it seemed. It is better to acknowledge the tradeoffs honestly (economics), and engage the citizenry directly (politics); the reward will be a stronger, more sustainable plan of action.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good: An intelligent plan, Aldo Leopold would likely tell us, rules out extinction as an option. That attitude is a good one to take into battle, but we should also be careful to set our sights on goals that are attainable. Adopting the highest level of conservation — full recovery for each and every salmon run in Puget Sound — as the minimum acceptable standard for success would ensure an atmosphere of constant compromise and failure. Many good efforts to improve salmon habitat or help salmon in other ways would be judged inadequate because they are not “perfect.”

But if not the highest standard, then what? Business-as-usual put the salmon where they are today, and there is a terribly slippery slope between a less-than-perfect goal and the sad resignation that business-as-usual is the best we can do.

The answer lies in a distinction that has stimulated philosophers since the Greeks: the difference between wishing, and willing. Eliminating the threat of extinction completely for every run of salmon, or for every species endangered by human activity, is a wish most of us have. But wishing is not willing, in the sense of choosing a deliberative course of action that brings one closer to a worthwhile goal. Can we return every salmon run of Puget Sound back to its condition of a thousand years ago? Probably not, for it is wishful to believe that civilization is about to disappear from the Pacific Northwest. The chance of extinction can be reduced significantly, however, if the people of the Pacific Northwest have the will.

What can be done over the next year, then, is to find better ways of protecting salmon, and make the commitment to improve those efforts year-after-year. Swift action is needed to turn things around. But that action must be viewed as the first step down the road to recovery. Adopting this strategy resolves the paradox by interlacing the goal of saving salmon with the many other goals our society has embraced, making the Northwest way of life an ever-changing one.

Such an approach might find favor with someone like Aldo Leopold. “We shall never achieve harmony with land,” he admitted in Round River, “any more than we shall achieve justice or liberty for people.” The important thing, he said. “is not to achieve, but to strive” for those higher aspirations. And in choosing to do so, “we admit at the outset that the thing we need must grow from within. No striving for an idea was ever injected wholly from without.”

The Endangered Species Act has injected the citizens of Puget Sound with a strong incentive to get to work and save our salmon. We have one year to grow our own solution “from within”; otherwise, the federal government will happily provide one of their own, “wholly from without.”