Ross Freeman is staff scientist at the Northwest regional office of American Rivers, a conservation organization that restores and protects river systems nationwide.

Monday, 28 Jul 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

As far as I can recall, the last time I had an entirely predictable, no-surprises week was during the tail end of my high school years, counting those languid days before an out-of-state escape to college. Ever since then, I’ve loosely followed the maxim of “do something every day that scares you” … and as a result I find myself working in conservation. Of course, it’s not the environment that I’m troubled by, but its future at the hands of shortsighted leaders that I really worry about. A week’s worth of diary entries can’t be exhaustive, but by Friday I hope to have explained what I do, how I got here, and why rivers in particular speak to me so loudly. And, given the nature of this work, several completely unanticipated crises will have reared up.

For 100 years, instream flows were way too low in the Walla Walla River until we helped launch a process that brought water back.

Photo: Waterwatch of Oregon.

Mondays in this job can begin with up to three hours of conference calls with various colleagues around the country. Topics can include work plans, the latest anti-environmental regulations released by the federal government at 4:59 p.m. last Friday, pending lawsuits, and press clips from obscure rural newspapers. Based on information from these conference calls, I can often calculate the likelihood of my chatting with the custodians sometime this week. They don’t arrive until early evening, but it’s amazing how many urgent tasks come up during a five-day period, and every so often that means a late night on the job. Still, it’ll never be like graduate school when the cleaners had time to polish the entire 12-story building and leave well after midnight … while I was still there! Never again.

Sometimes I daydream about my desk gathering dust while I spend my days working out in the field, on the rivers themselves. This isn’t just abstract fiction: I’ve had my share of rewarding outdoor-based positions in the past. But right now I am an indoors animal, emerging only at dawn and dusk to scuttle between home and work. It’s been an interesting transition, and one that many conservationists face: going indoors to preserve the outdoors. Working at home could be an appealing compromise, but the current arrangement has its own benefits too. I’m the general ecologist, a.k.a. “the science guy,” in the Northwest regional office of a national nonprofit, American Rivers. Some of the most notable distinctions between my Seattle location and American Rivers’ D.C. headquarters are that I can bike to work easily, I escape to the mountains and rivers almost every weekend, and I have an office with a door! But there are other differences.

The national office handles the lobbying, politics, and large-scale oversight of various programs and legislative issues, while the field and regional offices across the country bring things closer to the grassroots groups that keep the river movement alive. We can listen and respond to grassroots needs, taking concerns up to a national arena when necessary. Professionally speaking, the Northwest office enjoys the support, infrastructure, and reputation of a national group, while maintaining the independence to tailor projects according to local issues. For example, we spend a great deal of our time working on the recovery of endangered salmonid fish species.

Captaining the paddle raft is just part of the job.

Photo: American Rivers.

We also have more flexibility. In fact, I just helped organize our annual Northwest office river trip last week, this year on the Deschutes, a high-desert Wild and Scenic River in northern Oregon. It’s a lot tougher to do that with 40 people in the D.C. area! As it turns out, American Rivers was founded in 1973 to expand the number of waterways covered by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which gives special protection to rivers and streams with remarkable natural, cultural, historical, or recreational value. Since then our work has broadened dramatically to include programs that address dam removal and operation, floodplains, the Army Corps of Engineers, instream water flows, and urban sprawl. One of the toughest things about working on water issues is deciding what not to work on. Water has some kind of role in so many ecological processes far beyond the river channel. Often, it is inextricably linked to political decisions too, and it has been identified as the most likely leading source of global and social conflict for this century. There’s a lot to do.

In this office we focus much of our energy on restoring the rivers of the Northwest for the benefit of the region’s once-magnificent Pacific salmon runs. We’re using the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery to highlight this desperate situation and issue a call to action. Already more than a dozen Northwest fish species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act and we can’t wait any longer to reverse the loss of habitat and enhance river flows. Of the many facets of this campaign, two involve me on a day-to-day basis: Puget Sound river restoration and dam removal on the lower Snake River.

A draft map I’m working on of Pacific Northwest rivers and dams.

Thanks to skills I acquired during my graduate research at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve become quite adept at using geographic computer software that can analyze ecological data and make maps displaying the information. We are building this technology right into a new website that will contain a map of each large Northwest watershed depicting selected rivers, fish runs, dams, restoration successes, and ecological threats that we’re aware of. The site will provide a single launching point for people living in the region who want more information about their backyard rivers and how to get involved with local conservation efforts. Currently, that type of information is spread amongst dozens of unrelated federal, state, and local sites.

Well, no doubt it’s time to get Monday really rolling …

Photo of Ross used courtesy of Paul Bannick.