Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rivers of a Lost Coast

Last night Jan and I went to see Rivers of a Lost Coast at the Point Arena theater. I was prepared to be bored, as while this was billed as an environmentalist documentary about northern California rivers, I knew it was actually about fly fishing, which I consider less than fascinating.

The film, however, was artfully crafted. There were no long demonstrations of twenty ways to tie a fly. It was a story well told, the history of the heyday of fishing for salmon and steelhead from Santa Cruz to the border of Oregon. It showed the vast schools of giant salmon and the fishermen who learned to catch them in the elegant fly-fishing style. Some of these guys were pretty kooky. If the fish were running, they were there, even if it meant adopting a nomadic, job-free life style.

The heyday was in the 1950's. The salmon were running as stongly as they had for thousands of years. Anglers lined the banks of the rivers, big and small, including the Russian River, Klamath, Smith River and Eel River.

By the late 1970's, the fish were gone. Instead of catching several fish in a day, one was lucky to catch one fish in several days. The film shows what happened. Logging, especially clear-cuts with no remediation, caused too much sediment to run into the streams during the winter rain storms. Also, logging companies filled in streams to use for roads. Urban areas and suburbs grew, sucking the water from wherever they could find it (much northern California water is diverted to Los Angeles). Wine production, with its attendant vineyards, destroyed more forests and sucked up more water while dumping enourmous quantities of pesticides into the environment. When years of drought came, the rivers sank. Already hurting, the fish died off rapidly. Rather than restoring the fish by restoring the rivers, politicians decided to fund hatcheries. But dumping live hatchlings into dead rivers does not work very well, we have found.

And so fly fishing for salmon and steelhead in California has also died. Ancient fishermen remember the good old days and regret they were too busy fishing to fight with the loggers, developers and their politicians to protect the fish.

Craig Bell, who knew some of the old geezers interviewed in the film, spoke before the film and answered questions afterwards. I admire Craig. He is a workhorse when it comes to protecting our rivers and fish. But he is also a good illustration of why the environmental movement is so crippled in American politics. Multiply the example of Craig Bell by a factor of 10,000, and you might get an idea of the magnitude of this problem.

With Craig Bell as an example, the other half of the coin is going to be Mike Thompson. Mike, is this area's guy in the House of Representatives. Mike is known as an environmentalist largely because he once got photographed holding a salmon and demanding that water in the Klamath River be reserved to protect the salmon. The farmers who wanted the water for their farms were in a different Congressional District. Mike is in the conservative wing of congressional Democratic Party members, the Blue Dog Caucus.

Beyond that, local perceptions of Mike Thompson on the environment are shaped by people Craig Bell. I have heard Craig praise Mike Thompson many times. Unlike most of the local greenish voters, however, I know quite a bit about Mike Thompson. I also know why Craig has no choice but to praise Thompson in public.

Congressional offices operate like little feudal fiefs, not just on the local level, but in Washington as well. They get a lot of say in things that happen in their districts. Including funding for new parks, just for instance. You might think that the Interior Department gets a budget, and bureaucrats divide it up, but that is only partly true. If you want to extend a park or create a new one, you can't do it without the help of your person in Congress.

So activists like Craig Bell and their organizations spend a lot of time asking politician like Mike Thompson for their help. Even though the money actually comes from taxpayers, they are made to feel like it comes from Mike Thompson's own hands. Of course Craig rarely talks to Mike. Instead he talks to staff people. The staff people are really nice, if you are nice to them. That is their job. They are not so nice if you are a person known to campaign actively against their guy in elections.

After the film, in listing the causes of loss of salmon runs in northern California rivers, Craig listed grape vineyards as a major factor. This is on many people's minds locally right now because a astonishingly large vineyard is being proposed in our area by an international corporation. Craig did not mention Mike Thompson in regard to vineyards.

That would be impolitic.

In other situations, say wine tastings or vineyard tours, it is not impolitic to mention Mike. Vineyard owners love Mike Thompson. They are major contributors to his bloated campaign war chest. Mike Thompson created the Wine Caucus in Congress and has been one of its co-chairs for years. Representative Thompson has done a lot for the wine industry over the years. He is their guy in Congress. He has done a lot to help keep vineyards profitable. He recently got them a nice federal tax break, for instance.

Profitable vineyards mean expansion. Old vineyards grow, and new ones are built. That sucks more water from the land and dumps in more pesticides.

Craig Bell should be screaming about how damaging Mike is to the salmon fishery.

But that is the job of people like me. I don't ask Mike for anything, so I am free to criticize. I always vote for and support candidates who run against him (not Republicans. I support Green Party, Peace and Freedom Party, or independent candidates, depending on who is available). Of course my candidates always lose, but there is always the next election cycle.

Most of the big, national environmental groups are in the same position as Craig Bell. They do good work, but if they want anyone in Congress to work with them, they must mute their criticisms.

Sadly, many of them go further than that. They try to shout down the more radical environmentalists (I have never heard Craig Bell do that, but I've seen it plenty elsewhere).

As environmentalists our mainstream political strategy needs to be to replace the Mike Thompson's in Congress by genuine Greens. And since the big money will always be trying to oust any green in any major political office, we need a long term strategy to keep the voters on our side.

We also need to revive the concept of direct action. Direct action gets the goods. If you want the rivers to flow to the sea so the salmon can swim up them, don't wait for the government. Craig mentioned how much of what has been done since the 1960's to protect our rivers began with direct action. Like I said, Craig is one of the good guys.

But when he swears that Mike Thompson is a good environmentalist, imagine him winking a warning that maybe you should look a little deeper before believing him.

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