Wednesday 8th October, 2008
You've all heard the old saying "What you don't know can hurt you". It's true.
But I'm telling you, what you do know can hurt as well, maybe in ways you wouldn't expect.
I've been formally studying rivers - their form, function, and ecology - for almost ten years now, and informally studying them since the first time my parents took me flyfishing. My job focuses on finding and bringing solutions to the many, typically human caused, problems facing our rivers and fish. I've studied and trained to be able to recognize problems with our fluvial systems and ecosystems.
The more I come to understand natural processes and systems, the more I realize how often and to what degree humans have disrupted the often delicate balance and dynamics of what most people see as an essentially pristine river or fishery. Our impact on the natural world is far reaching and truly profound. Indeed, to some extent, it is everywhere, if you know what to look for.
Here in the Pacific Northwest there is a long history of treating our rivers and forests poorly, and seeing them as a commodity to be used, cut, dammed, or sold as quickly, efficiently and cost effectively as possible. Many of the most detrimental activities are no longer allowed or practiced regularly - wholesale removal of large woody debris from streams, logging of riparian areas, dumping industrial waste into rivers, large scale hydraulic mining, splash damming to transport logs - but these things happened at one point on nearly all of our rivers. In many areas the second or third growth timber has reached a size that obscures much of the past devastation and fools many people into thinking that the forest, and that bouncy, riffly, boulder bottomed creek that flows through it, are pristine. If there are a few Coho salmon in the creek, the likelihood of deception is even greater.
But the reality it different. "Pristine" was a floodplain forest of six, eight, ten, even twelve foot diameter old growth trees. The forest floor littered with the massive carcasses of thousand year old giants that died of old age. Native ferns filled the voids now occupied with a myriad of invasive plants like Himalayan blackberry, and Japanese knotweed. The stream was filled with the same massive logs that littered the forest floor, adding a source of nutrients and incredible "roughness" or "hydraulic complexity" to the stream and formed deep shaded pools, sorted the substrate leaving areas of perfectly sized spawning gravel, and stabilized the stream's bed and banks from erosion. The few salmon one might see in the creek today were most likely born in a hatchery, but historically, hundreds or even thousands of wild, stream-born Coho probably returned here each fall to spawn, and die. Their carcasses then piled up in the log jams and washed out onto the floodplain with the first big rains, acting as a natural fertilizer and a direct or indirect source of food for everything from elk to insects.
When I walk a stream these days, I see the evidence of man, both obvious and obscure, minor and profound, and it makes me sad. I know things - and it hurts.
But in the end, I think that what you do know ends up hurting far less than what you don't. Maybe it's better for me to bear the burden of my knowledge and fight through the sadness as long as that knowledge also allows me to make choices that in the long run, help to put things back on the right track.
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