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Environmentalism | Nature

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In 1990, word of a disturbing report spread like a virus through the conservation community. The first analysis of Pacific salmon populations had been conducted, and the results were beyond distressing. Salmon were disappearing—and they were disappearing fast. In just twenty years, the winter chinook of the Sacramento River fell from roughly 86,000 to 500. In thirty years, the fall chinook of the Snake River had dropped from 30,000 to 1,000. In forty years, Snake River sockeye had gone from 3,000 to one single fish. 

     Guido had known that the rivers in Oregon were changing; now he knew it was not only his home rivers that were being affected but the rivers up and down the western seaboard. 

     The state of Oregon dived headlong into the issue and immediately found itself grappling with all it had failed to understand about one of its most precious creatures. The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, responsible for managing Oregon’s salmon, had been blaming the diminished salmon population on what they believed was the obvious cause—not dams, logging or agriculture, but overfishing in the ocean and rivers. The agencies’s response was to build hatcheries, and artificially produce more fish to make up for the lost numbers, which did not end up being a solution at all.

     Salmon needed three things to survive: access to their home rivers, clean and cold water, and a place to spawn. Oregon had compromised each of these requirements, starting with dams. These concrete walls spanned rivers, blocking salmon from swimming upstream and reaching their spawning grounds. In the Columbia Basin there were at least sixty dams, only some of which had fish ladders. Salmon, determined to the last, often died in the futile attempt to get past these barriers. 

Heroes aren’t always recognisable at first. Guido Rahr grew up on the rivers of Oregon and only discovered his life’s mission when ecological disaster struck the bio-systems that everyone else took for granted. In Stronghold, Tucker Malarkey observes a determined individualist rising to the challenge and contending with human obstacles on America’s Pacific coast and across the Pacific in Russia’s eastern wilderness, in an attempt to ensure the survival of the salmon

Trees presented the next threat. The majority of lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest practised clear-cutting, razing every tree from a designated acreage and leaving huge squares of denuded land. The removal of trees created a number of problems. Without their shade, the river was unprotected from the sun and heated up, starving fish of oxygen. The root systems also gave stability to riverbanks. Without the trees to hold the land in place, the regular winter rains brought these barren, unstable hillsides crashing down into the rivers, turning the water to mud and creating impassable blockages. 

     Farming and agriculture exacted a final price. Throughout the year, farmers used the water from salmon tributaries to irrigate their crops. Eventually, excessive diversions and withdrawals from nearby rivers dried up creeks and streams, while the agricultural herbicides and pesticides leaked into the water system, impacting the aquatic insects the young salmon fed on. 

     The combination of dams, logging, and agriculture had led to a slow and steady degradation of salmon habitat. Looking back at it all a decade later, it was no wonder that, after millions of years of successful migrations, salmon were finally unable to complete their life cycles. The result was that the most fragile salmon runs were starting to disappear. Populations of summer steelhead and spring chinook were the first to vanish. Others would follow. 

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When Oregon’s sockeye salmon were listed as endangered, the state would never be the same. Salmon were a symbol of the region. It was said that they had once swum so thick in the Columbia that one could almost walk across the water on their backs. That the fish were now disappearing was unimaginable.

     The newly written Endangered Species Act had the effect of a bombshell. Suddenly salmon featured regularly on the front page of local newspapers and the industries, practices and systems influencing critical salmon habitat were scrutinized and assessed for their part in the mess. Lumber companies, farmers, dams, private home owners, the state—they were all culpable.

     Guido listened to the hubbub. The system had failed salmon. It wasn’t out of lack of knowledge—the needs of salmon were understood—it was that no one had been looking down the road at the long-term consequences of current practices. What made it unconscionable was that this same scenario had already played out with Atlantic salmon—twice: once in Europe and again on the eastern seaboard.

     Guido felt in his gut that he had a role to play in preventing the impending tragedy, but he was nowhere near the stage. He was a graduate of a mid-level university where he had failed to achieve academic distinction. Up until now, good grades had simply not been important. But the ESA listing changed everything. The only way for Guido to gain credibility was with a higher degree. He had to go back to school. And in his mind, there was only one school worth trying for. 

Tucker Malarkey is the author of best-selling novels An Obvious Enchantment and Resurrection. With a career that began at the Washington Post, her love of human culture and wilderness has taken her all over the world. She now lives with her son in Berkeley, California. She grew up fly fishing, studied Sovietology, and has travelled to Russia numerous times. Stronghold is her first major non-fiction work

Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies had fostered visionary conservationists since the early 1900s. Its graduates now affected environmental policy at the highest level. Guido decided this was the school for him. There would, he knew, be challenges to getting in. For starters, he didn’t have the academic record he needed to be considered by an Ivy League school. On paper he looked like a derelict who was resistant, uninterested or possibly mentally deficient. Which meant that, if he was going to have a prayer at being accepted, he would have to break into the admissions process at Yale. He would have to sell himself directly. 

     It was the spring of 1990 when Guido jumped into his Volkswagen van and got on Interstate 95 heading north from DC, alternately listening to the radio and composing his presentation on the six-hour drive to New Haven, Connecticut. Guido had done his research; in his pocket was a list of four professors he needed to see. His strategy was simple: he was going to tell them who he was, what he had done with his life so far, and why he belonged at Yale. He began knocking on doors. By the end of the day he had presented his argument four times, and without exception the professors had listened. Guido’s understanding of biological systems was exceptional and his experience in the field highly unusual. He described the intricate ecosystems of the high desert, the cloud forest and the salmon rivers with passion and knowledge, speaking about these places as if they were his home. 

     Guido drove back to DC thrilled to his core. Back in his apartment, he typed a letter to Professor Stephen Kellert, the director of admissions, thanking him for his time and reiterating his profound impression that he and Yale were a perfect fit. A few weeks later, he heard back from Kellert. The committee had unanimously agreed that he was an ideal, if unconventional, candidate and encouraged him to apply. 

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The next step was less comfortable. Guido winced inwardly when he called to have his college transcript sent from the University of Oregon; he knew the document was not a great testimony to academic commitment. It took a few more weeks for Yale to respond. Professor Kellert wrote the letter himself; it was brief and brutal. Guido’s transcript was one of the worst they’d ever seen; they couldn’t let him in. 

     Guido read the words without taking them in. They were wrong. They had made a mistake. Critical ecosystems were at risk, ecosystems upon which they all depended. People needed to be educated. 

     He got back in his van and headed north again, preparing his rebuttal as he drove. College, while not a peak performance, was six years ago and every year in Guido’s life since spoke of his commitment to conservation; every year his understanding of ecosystems grew. He was a willing and able envoy for a vital environmental cause. Was Yale going to slam the door in his face because of a few mediocre grades? 

     When Kellert agreed to see him, Guido made a simple plea. ‘Please don’t judge me on the past.’ Kellert remained unswayed. Guido was simply too much of a risk. 

     Guido had arrived at a reality he had eluded for a long time. To get what he wanted, he would have to play by someone else’s rules. He embarked on a plan B, seeking out members of the admissions committee and asking them what was required to make him the most competitive candidate the following year. He wanted to know the rules. The clearest answer came from Kellert. Guido needed to do a few things, none of which was easy. The first was to address his performance in college. He had to explain to Yale, and maybe to himself, how he came by such poor grades. Then he had to demonstrate his passion, discipline, and mission in the real world. Lastly, he had to brush up on his math skills.

     Guido listened to all of this in concentrated silence. ‘Okay,’ he said. If they wanted bold action, they would get it. Guido bought a ticket to South America and headed straight for the vast rain forest of Brazil. Here, in the heart of the Amazon, the Rainforest Alliance was actively saving the rain forest but had no program for the fish of the mighty Amazon. Guido knew that, just like the salmon of the Pacific Northwest, these fish faced threats. In fact, he informed the Alliance, the fish of the Amazon were as important as the rain forest itself. They were an integral part of the ecosystem, supporting the health of the river, which was the central artery of life in one of the planet’s most vital ecosystems ...

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