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Policies That Smell of Death

October 27, 2002|J. William Gibson | J. William Gibson is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach.

There's a stench of death in the air these days.

In Northern California, gill rot killed an estimated 30,000 chinook salmon in the Klamath River, a devastating loss in light of the long-term decline of salmon populations in the river. In the Canary Islands, 15 beaked whales beached themselves as they died from hemorrhages in and around their brains. Over the summer, fire destroyed hundreds of thousands of prime forest acres in Arizona, Colorado and other Western states.

Is apocalypse near? Maybe. But before concluding that a wrathful deity wants blood, it's important to learn how each of these disasters could have been prevented if environmental policymakers, in both the Bush administration and previous ones, had been paying attention to how ecosystems work.

In order to reproduce this fall, salmon needed to swim up a plentiful Klamath River. But a drought dating at least to spring 2001 has made water scarce in the Klamath watershed in southern Oregon and Northern California. Studies conducted by California Department of Fish and Game biologists showed just how much water young salmon need to survive. Yet in March, U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman opened the gates of the dam and diverted the water to farmers. As a result, the river below the dam received 20% to 30% less water this spring and summer than in 2001. With less water in the river, returning salmon were forced into shallow, warm pools -- perfect incubators for disease. Gill rot quickly decimated the fall run.

Bush administration officials immediately denied any responsibility. "No one has ever seen a problem like this," said a spokesperson from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, "and it may very well turn out to be a natural phenomenon." The chairwoman of the Yurok Indians, a tribe that has lived and fished along the Klamath for thousands of years, had a different explanation. "We begged them for more water, starting in the spring," said Sue Masten. "They ignored us."

The circumstances surrounding the whales' deaths produced similar denials from government officials. The whales didn't just happen to beach themselves. Instead, they died after U.S. and NATO warships tested high-intensity sonar systems in their habitat areas. Although a Navy spokesperson said that "it would be inappropriate to speculate on the cause of the stranding," necropsies of the whales showed brain and hearing damage, the kind of wounds caused by intense sound waves. Sonar tests conducted since the mid-1990s have had similar effects on whales. Nevertheless, more such tests are planned as part of the Navy's next generation of anti-submarine warfare.

And what of the fires that ravaged Western forests over the summer? Half a century of attempts to manage nature boomeranged. For all the cuddly charm of Smokey Bear and his pleas to stamp out forest fires, the no-burn policy inadvertently created conditions for extremely intense, destructive fires. Environmental researchers know as much. Before modern times, they found, fire was not alien to forest ecosystems. Naturally occurring fires and those set by Native Americans helped renew the ecosystems.

When fires occurred with some regularity, they burned off underbrush and smaller trees; older, larger and stronger trees withstood the flames. In places where Indians practiced controlled burns, such as in Yosemite Valley, astonishing beauty flourished. The no-fire policy, by contrast, allowed underbrush to thicken and small trees to multiply.

Since the 1950s, the timber industry's practice of clear-cutting has compounded the problem. Clear-cutting takes out all the trees at the same time it creates mammoth piles of dried-out brush and saplings -- even more fuel for forest fires. Unfortunately, these fires don't produce the same beneficial effects as the more limited ones of earlier eras. Thus, the Bush administration's recent proposal to allow timber companies to increase their clear-cutting in national forests in order to protect the remaining lands from fire is bound to fail.

In all three cases, government officials apparently decided that natural ecosystems exist for the good of the state and industry. Nature can be forced to adapt to government's will: Salmon should learn how to get by with less water; whales should learn to steer clear of sonar tests; forests should adapt to government policies on timber, recreation and housing development.

But natural ecosystems aren't unruly children who can be cajoled or socialized into behaving the way adults want. They have their own histories dating back millions of years, their own "integrity," their own ways of being. Although scientists still have much to learn about the natural world, the broad parameters of most ecosystems are not a mystery.

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