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Dam nation! America's rivers in crisis

Inside Passage By Richard Manning Island Press 210 pp., $24.95

There's nothing more depressing than taking a trip with an environmentalist. At least that's what my wife tells me. To the keen-eyed environmentalist, that stunning range of golden hills is not an awesome display of nature's beauty; it's an impoverished, livestock-ravaged ecosystem devoid of native wildlife and dominated by exotic weeds.

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Traveling with veteran journalist Richard Manning is much the same experience. Throughout these loosely knit essays, the reader catches glimpses of the majestic natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, running from Oregon up to Alaska. But mostly, Manning forces the reader to look at the region's underbelly, and it's rarely a pretty sight.

Depleted rivers, overcut forests, lost native cultures, burgeoning suburbs - Manning describes these familiar stories well, using interviews with an assortment of crusty fishermen, tribal leaders, and activists to spice up his pointed narrative.

"Inside Passage," though, travels beyond the boundaries of traditional environmental non-fiction. In an essay called "Dam Nation," Manning journeys to the Columbia River, where millions of adult salmon once roiled the waters on their way from the Pacific Ocean to the streams of their birth in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Manning tells us how overfishing, logging, grazing and - most importantly - federal dam-building decimated the wild runs to the point where today most of us wouldn't know a wild fish if it swam into our bathtub. At most restaurants, we sink our teeth into salmon raised on fish farms.

Manning also gives the sad salmon saga some important context. The drive to tame the Columbia, as with so many other rivers in this country, was not fueled by large industrialists bent on making money, though they certainly made out in the end. Rather, the thrust came from progressives, such as Franklin Roosevelt and singer Woody Guthrie, who saw the construction of dams as a way to pull the country's working class out of the economic doldrums and to create a just and orderly society.

Manning also throws in some counterintuitive science, including the revelation that dams can be good for salmon. Beavers once created immense expanses of prime salmon habitat in the Columbia Basin, but those dams were temporary, constantly being destroyed and reborn in different places, creating a shifting, but always rich system. Federal engineers are already applying the wisdom of the beaver to how they operate dams, releasing waters in ways that emulate the natural flow of rivers. And river restorationists who once tried to "stabilize" unhealthy streams, now intentionally load them up with logs that will wash out in big storms, only to snag up somewhere downstream.

The theme of nature's dynamism and human society's need to accommodate it permeates each essay, including one set far from the Pacific Northwest. Manning recounts how poor farmers and fishermen in Thailand are destroying natural mangrove forests on the coastline to create shrimp farms to feed the West's growing appetite for frozen seafood. Unfortunately, the mangroves shelter the natural food base for shrimp, so now Thai fishermen are stripping the area of native fish to feed their crop.

It's another sobering lose-lose environmental story, except that Manning finds a ray of hope: One Thai village he visits has restored its mangroves and now harvests sustainable levels of shrimp and crab.

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And ultimately that is Manning's powerful message: We can reintegrate ourselves with the natural world and reap its tremendous bounty if we stop trying to simplify it. That's no easy task in this era of cookie-cutter subdivisions and Wal-Marts. Then again, nobody said traveling with an environmentalist was easy.

Paul Larmer is the senior editor of High Country News. He lives in Paonia, Colo.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor