River of Renewal

IT HAS TAKEN A CRISIS for the Klamath River watershed to become widely perceived as a unitary whole. Naturally divided in two by the Siskiyou Mountains, with differing geographies upstream and down, separation is further complicated by modern economies and political boundaries. The basin lies in two states (Oregon and California) and six counties, and 60 percent of its land base is overlapped by the jurisdictions of half a dozen federal agencies. In September 2002, an estimated sixty-five thousand adult king salmon died of diseases associated with warm water and reduced flows as they made their way up the Klamath to spawn. In succeeding years, large numbers of juvenile salmon perished from diseases caused by poor water quality before they ever reached the sea. By 2006, commercial fishing seasons were reduced to protect the Klamath fishery — up until recently the third-largest in the continental United States — and to a point that was disastrous for the few surviving fishermen.

Yet 160 years ago, at least seven different runs of salmon had surged up the river in the millions, forming the base of an economy that supported a dozen native enclaves for several thousand years. What happened to the Klamath between 1850 (when Euro-Americans arrived in large numbers) and 2006? This is the question that Stephen Most tackles in his epical River of Renewal.

The Klamath can be read as an encapsulated history of bad water-management decisions. Virtually everyone involved is a victim; the salmon are merely the most dramatic. When the Link River Dam was constructed without fish ladders in the early 1920s, salmon were eliminated from the upstream half of the drainage. Over the next sixty years, six more dams would push salmon habitat farther and farther downstream, ostensibly to provide flood control and hydroelectric power. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is now considering whether or not to grant new, fifty-year licenses for the dams.

Historically, the upper Klamath offered a wealth of wetlands, timber, and habitat for migrating waterfowl. Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were quick to recognize the remote territory as a public benefit and created there some of the first national forests and wildlife refuges. The unintended consequences of this were the creation of a theater for a last hurrah of the Homestead Act — most public lands had been either occupied or protected by this time — as veterans of World War I were offered land, and an early opportunity for the Bureau of Reclamation to flex its muscles by making those lands valuable by diverting irrigation water to them. The largest numbers of farmers now suffering water shortages are those veterans’ grandchildren. The crisis created by the cumulative mismanagement of resources has led to a social polarization between upstream and downstream users who fail to recognize their common predicament.

Most has spent a good part of the last two decades as a documentary filmaker and dramatist in the region, witnessing firsthand two of the most significant episodes of civil disobedience in the West in the last generation. Throughout the 1960s, the Yurok fished the lower Klamath, citing rights granted in an 1855 treaty and in violation of current state and federal laws, thus forcing a Supreme Court decision in 1973 that ruled in their favor.

Most tells these stories in the voices of the protagonists, who give the basin’s complex history an illuminating immediacy that infuses the entire book. It is a mark of his achievement that he has been able to make these historical, cultural, and environmental pieces into a comprehensive whole. River of Renewal is the best source available for those wishing to think clearly about this cumulative tragedy, as well as a first-rate model for regional land use history anywhere in the American West.

Freeman House is the author of the award-winning Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species.