Dear Secretary Zinke,
I spent this Thanksgiving morning standing in a river. The American River, to be exact, between the Howe and Watt bridges. I’d gotten up at 5 a.m., and waited anxiously till dawn. I made coffee and figured I’d use up some of the time making the cranberry sauce (might as well get that out of the way). When dawn came I was already in my boots and vest. I tiptoed into the bedroom to leave my husband a cup of coffee and whispered “I’m going fishing” to which he mumbled, “ermmm….have fun.”
I was feeling quite smug, thinking I’d have the river to myself, but no, there were already 2 guys there when I arrived. Another joined us soon after. I’ve been fishing for over 40 years, but only took up fly fishing about 2 years ago. I’m still pretty unsure about my casting, so I tend to stay away from where “the real fisherman” are – that is, the riffles by the Watt bridge. But this morning I waded out, and took my place. I grew up here, so my early memories are of travelling over the Watt Avenue bridge and looking out and seeing the fishermen lined up when the steelhead were running.
I stood in the water and marveled at the human invention that is neoprene and how could my feet and legs possibly stay so warm in this water? I listened to the hawks and kept an eye out for otters (they’re usually farther downstream but you never know). I remembered the story my mother once told about her disastrous water ski adventure.
When she was younger she went water skiing with friends on the Sacramento River where it meets the American, just a few miles from where I stood this morning. Now, my mother was not athletically inclined, but bless her heart, she tried. (She once ran over her own hand while snow skiing. She explained that skis used to be much longer so it was possible, but not likely. It took skill for her to manage that.) She gave it her all, but spent most of the day being dumped into the river. The next day she was so sick that a friend had to take her to the emergency room. When the doctor asked what she’d done the day before, because he could not figure out what was wrong with her, she told him she’d been water skiing in the river, and he immediately knew what was wrong. He told her to go home, and wait for everything to get out of her system, and to stay out of the river, because at that time it was so polluted that it made her sick.
This morning you would never know that this river , along with the Sacramento, was such a mess. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time on the American River Bike Trail, but I don’t remember ever seeing a hawk. Now they perch in my neighbor’s tree and when I’m at the river I never fail to spot at least one or two. When I take my son for walks along the river we keep an eye out for tracks – deer, coyote, and yes, the occasional, mountain lion. This river, and the region, have been transformed over the past 50 years. The river is clean and we protect it now.
You have a choice before you, the immediate or the lasting. The immediate is the cold, hard cash that can be gotten from mining rights to public lands or drilling in the Arctic. There’s a lot of money to made in selling out the public lands that you were intrusted to protect. And, in case it wasn’t mentioned when you were first nominated for your job, that job is to protect the Interior of the United States of America.
Your other choice is to be remembered. Remembered for having stood for our public lands. For saving them from those who would think that leaving our lands to future generations means less than a nice check today. The second choice is harder – you would have to stand up to your contributors, to the Senators that voted to approve your nomination, and to the President himself. Teddy Roosevelt is remembered to this day, and revered by both conservatives and liberals, because he stood up for what he believed in – in our public lands and the incredible beauty of this country.
“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.”
– Speech by Theodore Roosevelt in Osawatomie, Kansas, August 31, 1910.
You and I are lucky – as fishermen (um, fisherpersons?) we experience that mystery, melancholy and charm every time we’re standing in a river, throwing a loop, watching the water and waiting for a strike. Let’s leave it be, so that future generations can have those moments too.