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The power of stories in combating our shifting baselines

Written by Drew Bennett, a 2016-2017 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology

In 2009, my wife and I moved in with my grandfather in a small town in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A photo of the three of us taken shortly after the move sits on my desk. I often look at the photo and am reminded of the incredible stories my grandfather shared with us – stories of a time long past. Born in Nebraska, my grandfather’s family lost their farm in the Dust Bowl. With my grandfather and his three young siblings in tow, they moved west in search of a new life. After spending several seasons as itinerant farm workers in California’s Central Valley, they eventually settled in Oregon on the banks of a tributary to the mighty Willamette River.

It was the height of the Great Depression and, like nearly everyone living in their rural community at the foothills of the Cascade mountains, my grandfather’s family was poor. With a river in their backyard, my grandfather would watch salmon on their seasonal runs en route to spawning grounds upstream. At times, the salmon were so thick that he and his siblings used pitchforks to haul them out of the water. In a time of great scarcity, these salmon runs were a seemingly limitless bounty - literally there for the taking. Stacking the fish into huge piles along the shore, there was more meat than a family could eat. To extend the bounty, they dried the fish to feed their chickens. This kept the chickens healthy and allowed them to sell eggs along the roadside to earn a little extra income to supplement the family’s inconsistent work. In hard times, nature helped provide for the family. 

It would have been unimaginable to that boy that this abundance would vanish during his lifetime. Impacted by dams, higher river temperatures, and the loss of habitat, only a handful of salmon now make the pilgrimage to spawn in the headwaters of their ancestral river. The Foster Dam, built in 1968, completely blocked salmon passage in this tributary. Today, still lacking a fish ladder to provide passage around the dam, the few returning salmon are collected from the base of the dam, loaded into the back of a truck, and driven around the dam’s reservoir before being dumped back in the river to continue their journey a few more miles upstream. The salmon that still make the trip are hardly enough to maintain a viable population. Instead less hardy fish raised in hatcheries are released to try to increase salmon populations. The salmon migration that was once one of nature’s great marvels has been reduced to a process dependent on continual human intervention.

While my natural tendency is to lament the loss of the wild salmon runs, my grandfather’s story is emblematic of a larger and more insidious phenomenon in our society. This story represents a quintessential example of a shifting baseline, or a change in the reference points we use to judge changes in the environment based on our own lived experiences. If what we perceive is only a small change in our lifetimes, we do not recognize the drastic changes that accrue over generations. Over time, viewing our own experiences as normal, we slowly shift our standards and expectations. There are many other examples, from the gradual decline of the now extinct passenger pigeon, a bird once so numerous in the eastern United States that migrating flocks darkened the sky, to the dimming of stars we see at night as urban areas grow. Each decision made on the path to the salmon’s decline seemed rational and the impacts so minor that few noticed. Our baselines deceived us, and it is only in hindsight that we question our logic.

The photo that sits on my desk connects my own family’s history to the story of the salmon. In the background is a reservoir created by the construction of the Foster Dam. At the time, few would have had concern for the impact of the dam. After all, the dam provided electricity, flood control, consistent water for irrigation, and recreational opportunities. It represented the forward progress of a poor town in the backwoods of Oregon towards a more prosperous future. But Foster was not the only dam built in the Willamette Valley. It is just one of more than 20 major dams in the basin, not to mention the hundreds of levees, dikes, and artificial channels that control the flow of water in the region. Farmers also cleared streamside forests to plant to the river’s edge. Side channels that provided habitat were drained and cultivated. Towns and cities were built on its banks and soil and vegetation were replaced by concrete. While any one of these changes may not have been catastrophic, their combined impact is immense.

Impressive efforts are now underway to restore the Willamette Basin. Hundreds of miles of streamside forests have been replanted. Smaller levees and other barriers to fish passage have been removed. Conservationists in Oregon even won the 2012 Riverprize from the International River Foundation for their efforts. In 2015, the Oregon chub, a small fish that only lives in the Willamette Basin, became the first fish in the United States to be removed from the Endangered Species list after its population recovered. The chub’s recovery was possible in part because of voluntary conservation efforts that engaged farmers in the restoration of backwater channels that provide critical habitat. Indeed, bandages are slowly being placed over the basin’s numerous wounds.

There are many reasons to celebrate the progress that has been made in the Willamette and in many other locations. But my grandfather’s stories still linger in my mind. This is not the basin of his youth.  As exciting as recent progress appears, these accomplishments are incremental positive steps in a landscape that, when viewed through a generational lens, still bears deep scars. Are our measures of success too timid? Are we thinking too small? By most measures, the ecological health of the Willamette has significantly improved in my lifetime. But my baseline deceives me. My grandfather’s stories remind me of what was truly lost. We need to hear more stories like his. Stories that humanize this history and connect us to our past. We need these stories to combat our shifting baselines and recalibrate our perceptions.

When I look at the picture on my desk, I sometimes wonder about the stories I will tell one day. Will I celebrate the small victories while ignoring the long-term changes in the landscapes in which I live and work? As a scientist, I use data such as satellite images to ground my perceptions, yet these data typically only go back a few decades at best. These short-term perspectives guide us in making decisions that appear rational today, but blind us to the larger context. Data, while essential, are also limited in shaping public opinion. Our brains are wired to think in stories. It is often strong personal anecdotes that move us to action. In a technological world that connects us more to screens than people, stories help reconnect us with each other and our surroundings. If we knew our ancestors' stories - stories of prairies filled with bison and seas teaming with fish – would we accept the status quo? These stories are our best defense against the insidious shifts that have lulled us into accepting the slow decline of our natural systems. We need these stories to inspire us to strive for what we have yet to achieve.

More Information

For more information on salmon issues in the Pacific Northwest, the Nature episode “Salmon: Running the Gauntlet” provides an excellent overview.

To learn more about restoration efforts in the Willamette, several Freshwaters Illustrated short films, such as “Water and Wood”, provide an entertaining introduction.

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