Restoring A River And Triggering The Largest Environmental Restoration Project in US History

Restoring a River

Prelude: Antigua Guatemala

It’s been 10 years now. In April 2013, I met one Jason Atkinson. I met him because we both were attending a 10 day seminar in Antigua Guatemala called “Pursuing The Good Life,” which was offered by The Aspen Institute.

The Aspen Institute espouses values-based leadership, so the seminar was not about material pursuits, but was about a civic, even spiritual journey. Jason was there because he was and is a Rodel Fellow, a program at Aspen for emerging political leaders.

Jason had served 14 years in the Oregon State Senate and was not yet 40. He was fourth generation growing up on The Klamath River, which runs 1200 miles from Northern California well up into Oregon’s wild interior. He grew up fly fishing on that river. When the steelhead are running, I know to expect Jason to be off grid. A salmon or a rainbow trout? However you parse it, a beautiful fish.

Steelhead Catch and Release

We were 20 in the seminar, led by the venerable moderator Keith Berwick. Thousands of Aspen fellows have over the years been touched by Keith’s wisdom and kindness. His fellow moderator, Heather Sonn, was estimable in her own right, a rare combination of mind and soul. She taught me how to meditate. Some day I’ll get it right! No pressure.

We dug deep those 10 days, seeking meaning in great works, in the poetry most memorably of Robert Frost and Mary Oliver, arriving at the most basic of questions. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do. with your one wild and precious life?” Mary asked us in “A Summer’s Day.” Infused we were then with sense of urgency. But for what? That was for us separately to answer.

It was fitting that we were all gathered in the ancient capital of Guatemala. “Antigua” (Spanish for “ancient”). Much was frozen in time from when the earthquake struck in 1773. Asking timeless questions among the ancient ruins.

Antigua, Guatamala Among The Ruins

There had also been an earthquake in 1717. It was over 7 on the Richter Scale. This second earthquake was enough to convince the Spanish to move the capital to where the present Guatemala City stands today.

So we were sequestered there, walking the cobblestone streets, wandering the among the shops, living in a former monastery now offered for such retreats. We are at times made aware of today’s Guatemala, of the poverty, violence, and racism, of a society trying to hang on. Here in Antigua, it was most beautiful, but getting there could be flat out dangerous.

The Flowers of Guatemala

What could be done? What could we do? In our little bubble of privilege, we faced the responsibility that comes with that. We’d come seeking meaning and direction. What now? What do I have most to give? Where can we best effect change, given who we were?

Jason, for his part, had already traveled very far to arrive here. An accidental gunshot wound had almost cost him his leg. This from a competitive skier and cyclist. A cyclist passing through his rural town got a flat tire. Jason put the bike on a rack to change it, and a gun fell out of the fanny pack. When he arrived in Guatemala, he was about a year in to his journey back to life, slowly and painfully seeking to regain all he’d lost. He was in no shape to continue in the state senate, and his bid to run for governor was out of the question. It was as much an existential struggle as a physical one.

So he and I would wander the cobblestone streets of Antigua, Jason a lanky 6’5″, while I came in at 5’8″, a real Mutt and Jeff pairing if people even still remember that. Mismatched, but inseparable, he from the West, I from The East, conservative and liberal. In the end, we were joined by our shared humanity — our love of Nature, a good story or joke or prank, a shared understanding that our journeys ahead would necessarily have us pass through our dark places.

I saw day by day how he gradually came back to himself, as we all opened up to each other over those 10 days. There was an alchemy among us. We all were actively exploring our vulnerabilities and aspirations, and from that we grew stronger together through that collective honesty.

On the last night on the 10th day, all gathered around a fire pit, sitting in semicircle on an ancient stone wall. An old woman emerged at dusk from the surrounding brush, diminutive, gnarled. She was a shaman, clearly of Mayan descent. She handed us each a small bundle of sage.

We were each instructed to ignite or sage and make a deep wish: What did we want to see in the world above all else? As each whispered their whispered their personal prayer as the smoky sage billowed and burned our eyes burned in tears as we sought breath. Jason offered his sage to the fire, and offered his words. Another supplicant, a brassy New Yorker with a heart of gold, shrieked out “Save The Clams?!”

Jason said somberly “Save The Klamath.” It was then we learned of his river for the first time, the river he grew up on, his young son being the fifth generation to know its grandeur. Jason had already spent more than a decade championing his river, lobbying ceaselessly among all the warring factions on the river — the Native American tribes living at the mouth of the river, the farmers, the ranchers — negotiating between Oregon and California, where The Klamath finds the sea. The Klamath was part of Jason, and it was dying.

Meanwhile Back on Long Island

That moved me deeply for back East on Long Island I had seen most of what I knew of Nature around my little town vanish over the years and witnessed the fading of the traditional fishing communities that dotted The South Shore. What was to be done? Just as Jason lived on his river, I was to be found in Long Island’s woods and swamps around the estate of John Roosevelt, Teddy’s cousin, who had settled on The South Shore of Long Island, along The Great South Bay.

The John Roosevelt Estate

I am happy to say that after decades of neglect, the estate is being wonderfully restored, while The Long Island Conservancy is assisting in restoring the grounds by removing invasive plants and planting natives, following the original planting plans.

Different coasts, different outlooks on the world, yet a brotherhood formed between Jason and I, which he commemorated in a piece he wrote for The Huffington Post called “Conservation’s Radical Middle.

Conservation in America is shifting to the “radical middle.”: The extreme edges of the political spectrum, right and left, the partisans, protect the status quo. That has radicalized those caught in middle, where most Americans live, where people and their local environments suffer the consequences of partisan gridlock. People want and need action, not obstruction.

Teddy Roosevelt, the Easterner who came West to discover Nature and rediscover himself after much loss, had created common ground for us. The brochure for his project had Teddy on the cover. In the course of multiple school trips to Sagamore Hill, where Teddy raised his family, I came to marvel out how he had run the country from a small desk in the foyer, where he could look out and see who was at the front door.

My Children Meeting TR at Sagamore Hill

Just as Jason was inseparable from the river he knew, I had disappeared into the woods and swamps of Long Island in my youth. The bay, and all that meant, was just down the street. As different as we were in outlook, we were brothers in spirit. He was of the hunter / fisherman contingent wing of the environmental movement, the TR wing if you will. In the fullness of time, Teddy Roosevelt IV would be featured in Jason’s movie, but then I am getting ahead of myself.

A River Between Us — And A Continent

Jason, who had never made a movie, decided he needed to do just that if he was to save The Klamath. People had to see what was at stake, his river, it’s sublime beauty, the communities that lined it, from the tribes at the mouth to the farmers and ranchers upriver, and of course, the steelhead.

Supported initially by friends and family, he began his project. He arranged to have the film “workshopped” that July in Aspen. Some two dozen offered their suggestions to him over a two hour session. His working title was “Why The Klamath Matters.” I suggested we retitle it “A River Between Us.” This was not about one particular river, but more broadly about “The Commons,” a shared resource that also battled over, and as in the case of The Klamath, with often tragic results. It is said that in the West, the struggle is always over water, but the regular despoiling of a shared natural resource through individual self-interest is universal.

The title captured the basic tension in the film — the river both connected and divided. Native American tribes at the mouth of the river in Northern California are reliant on the annual salmon runs, as they have been for eons. Farmers need to water their crops, and the ranchers needed water for their cattle. At the same time, a prolonged drought was wreaking havoc on the river’s flow. Fish kills and algal blooms had become an annual problem. Time was running out.

Four hydroelectric dams built along the river had become obsolete, and by blocking flow were choking the river to death. For there to be any real restoration of the river, the dams had to be decommissioned. It would take not only California and Oregon’s actions, but the federal government would have to get involved as well. This was the challenge that Jason had been working at for a decade already. How could he corral all the competing interests and have them all agree in principle to a plan to save The Klamath while at the same time aligning the politics and finally securing the funding for this?

Along this 1200 mile river, there are innumerable farms and ranches, and as we are seeing increasingly, drought. Fish kills and algal blooms, caused by a lack of flow and an excess of nutrients, exacerbated by four hydroelectric dams that had been constructed along the way, had fueled intense animosity among the various stakeholders on the river. The film shows what happens when warring factions are brought from conflict to cooperation, when people actually sit down together, break bread (literally) and recognize their common humanity through Nature.

“To Heal A River, You Must First Heal A People.”

A Film Made On A Shoestring Changes Environmental History

Jason stepped boldly into this maelstrom. Such was his love of the river. So the film got made, and it has led to the largest river restoration project in the history of The United States. I screened it back on Long Island and was the first to help fund it. In 2014, Sally Jewell, then Secretary of Interior, came West and came to a screening of “A River Between Us.

The four hydroelectric dams along the river, no longer really needed, and a major source of various ecological issues that had accrued across decades, were to be decommissioned, so that once more The Klamath would flow free, as it was intended, and its fish could swim upstream to spawn, as they are meant to do. It took an Executive Order as Obama left office to begin the process. After 5 Presidents and 10 Governors, The Klamath would be free again.

One of Four Dams To Be Decommissioned
river restoration
Former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongski, Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Jason Atkinson
California Governor Gavin Newsom and Jason

In 2015, we screened the film locally, near to Sagamore Hill, and Jason and I made a pilgrimage there. He had inspired both of us.

Sagamore Hill, With Jason and his Son Perry on the Porch, now a Filmmaker Himself

The patrician New Yorker who discovered the wilderness here in The Adirondacks and Long Island, and who went West when he needed to heal after much sadness and loss. It is fair to say that Jason and I find our healing in Nature. That is our common message. Heal this country — its rivers, bays, forests. We do that, we heal ourselves too.

Letting the Water Flow To Restore A Bay: Nature Needs To Be Free

A bit of a sidebar, but worth citing, because sometimes there are things you can’t quite explain. April 2012 we were in Antigua Guatemala. Come August, I find myself back in my hometown for my 35th High School Reunion. We returned to find that our community had been decimated by the collapse of clamming industry.

Up to 1985, there were over 6000 people “working the bay,” out raking from their clam boats, getting two “counts” or bushels by early afternoon (1000 clams). $80 for that. Enough to support a family. Certainly it was vastly preferable to working for at the mall.

Between over-clamming and over-development (LI quadrupled in population Post WW II, with scant attention paid to the environmental costs of that), the inevitable happened — all the excess nutrients flowing into the bay from fertilizers, from septic systems, from runoff, all with the massive destruction we saw all along LI as the modern suburb was created, led to an ecological collapse from which we are unlikely to recover.

A persistent brown tide occluded the bay bottom for weeks, and the bay gave up its ghost. The eel grass that once entangled our props constantly was gone, and along with that went our clams, for this was their habitat. We had been producing 50% of the hard shell clams eaten in the U.S. Harvests fell by 95%+. 6200 clammers lost their livelihood from one year to the next, a way of life now vanished. Today, the bay is all but dead. As a boy, I didn’t even have to bait a hook to catch a fish. Now people work in malls, or fall into one vice or another, when a healthy bay would have sustained them.

So here I was at my 35th High School Reunion, a month after the workshopping of the film, and six months after meeting Jason in Guatemala, and as it turned out exactly ten weeks before Sandy struck, on August 3rd 2012. We had all come home and were horrified at what had happened to our community as we lost our bay. We vowed right there and then to create “Save The Great South Bay.”

Sandy’s devastation created one silver lining. The storm had breached Fire Island, and clean ocean water began flushing the bay, especially around Bellport, out east some from here. We saw in the resurgence of Nature our past and our possible future. Could we save the bay somehow? It only took clean water.

Restoration Starts At The Community Level

It took though people banding together in every community along the bay, along with our best science, to keep that miraculous inlet open. Every politician at every level of government wanted to see that breach closed. The people of The South Shore, though, would not stand for what was honestly a fear driven politics.

What did I learn in this journey that started in Antigua Guatemala ten years ago when I met Jason? I learned that we can be united in our love of place, in our connection to local nature. I also learned that if just a couple of people have the grit and determination, worlds can change.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead
Tribal Leaders Standing Atop One Of The Four Dams To Be Decommissioned

After ten Governors and five Presidents, the dams are coming down, the salmon (steelheads) will again swim upstream into Oregon’s interior unimpeded, the commons will be restored. In all $2 billion dollars has been allocated to rebuild habitat along the 1200 mile Klamath. The largest river restoration project and the largest environmental restoration project in U.S. history began with the passion and determination of a few. Take this lesson home with you, no matter where you are from.

Jason Today: Spreading The Gospel Of Fishing To Fishers of Men

Among Jason’s many skills, his greatest may be his ability to tie freshwater flies. Just an artist. He is one of the best fly fishermen in the world, representing several apparel and gear companies, and leading fishing tours on his beloved river. In the past several years, he has been running Pastor’s Monday, based on the belief that those working on a Sunday need a day off too. So they fish together on The Klamath, four or five with Jason, as he rows along the river he has always known.

They learn to tie a fly and how to cast. They learn just a few of the secrets and insights one gleans from one grown inseparable from his surroundings. Mostly, these pastors of various faiths learn the joy of being themselves, separate from their respective flocks, together within the temple of Nature, where indeed we all find our faith.

Addendum: We Are The Biggest Tree Huggers You Will Ever See

As a side note and a warning, with anything Jason is involved in there will be plenty of hijinks and tomfoolery. Jason’s art is to employ his free spirit to free others, quite often through cascades of laughter. I join my cryptozoological brother – East meeting West.

Western Sasquatch
Eastern Sasquatch

Tight Lines, My Brother

So much more needs to be said and written — the many preludes to this moment, and the little miracles we will witness in the years and decades to come as the river and surrounding valley is repaired, and as those who call this place home find themselves at home again. What comes next? Well that is really up to you.

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