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Add Rivers to `Endangered' and `Threatened' Lists

`I AM haunted by waters," Norman Maclean wrote at the end of his beautiful, short autobiographical piece about fly-fishing and life just this side of frontier days in Montana. And so we all are when we see them in their essence: high mountain lakes, deep blue and bottomless; rhythmic ocean surf; flowing streams and rivers - especially rivers, metaphors for adventure and discovery, purity and progress.

For Maclean, the Blackfoot River, which flows out of Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide to where it joins the Clark Fork 132 miles later near Missoula, was "the big river." It was the one to fish in a family (headed by a Presbyterian minister) for whom "there was no clear distinction between religion and fly-fishing."

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The Blackfoot today is a changed river. Toxic tailings and acid drainage from abandoned mines; oil and gas development at its headwaters; grazing and logging with consequent siltation; diversions for agriculture: All have had their impact since Meriwether Lewis passed through in 1806, and especially since the Maclean brothers and their father pulled in cutthroat, rainbow, and brookies there in the early part of the century. Some say the bull trout should now be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Blackfoot River itself recently made the unofficial list of 25 endangered and threatened North American rivers posted each year by the conservation group American Rivers. "Indeed, by last year," the group's report notes, "the Blackfoot River had become so degraded that the fishing scenes in the filming of 'A River Runs Through It' [a Robert Redford project] had to be shot on another river."

Too often we have treated rivers more like plumbing (or worse yet, toilets) instead of the ecological circulatory system they truly are. With little thought for the ultimate consequences, we flush our domestic and industrial wastes into them, or we rearrange their natural flow. Then when the tap water starts to stink or some critter checks out and environmentalists get all exercised, we wonder why. We seem to forget, as the saying goes, that "we all live downstream."

Downstream from the Blackfoot is the Columbia River, which together with its tributaries carries twice the flow of the Nile and 10 times as much as the Colorado. Seen along the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the river looks as powerful and fresh as ever. It carries huge cargo vessels up to Lewiston, Idaho, and back out to the Pacific. Its waters make the fields green and the orchards bloom this time of year. Windsurfers - Day-Glo water bugs - skitter across its surface at a terrific pace.

But the Columbia too is in big trouble, so much so that it's No. 1 on the American Rivers "endangered" list. Here, the problem is not only farming, logging, mining, development, and over-fishing, but also major dams throughout the Columbia/Snake River watershed designed to harness cheap power for the Northwest and California.

Last December, the federal government listed Snake River sockeye salmon as endangered, and two weeks ago the chinook (the largest of the species, also called king salmon) was added to the "threatened" list. According to the American Fisheries Society (a scientific group), 214 stocks of ocean-migrating fish up and down the rivers emptying into the Pacific are dangerously depleted; 159 risk extinction, and 19 are most likely already goners.

Back when Norman Maclean was fishing the Blackfoot, as many as 16 million wild salmon muscled their way back up the Columbia Basin to spawn. Today there are fewer than 3 million, and most of those are hatchery fish, which have a hard time figuring out where they are or where to go. ("Swimming hot-dogs," critics call them.) The wild stocks are down to just 3 percent of their original population.

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The point is not to idealize salmon, which to most of us still look their best just off the grill. But to realize that when they are gone, or when some other river-dweller is gone because we've so engineered or polluted its habitat that recovery is extremely costly if not impossible, then we've exceeded our authority as the dominant species. And then, like Maclean but for different reasons, we really will be "haunted by waters."

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