On August 31st, U.S. Senator Patty Murray came to the Olympic Peninsula to walk along the river with myself, State Representative Steve Tharinger, President of Taylor Shellfish Company, Bill Taylor, and author and conservationist, Tim McNulty, to discuss the Wild Olympics Wilderness & Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Our group walked along the stunning Dungeness river. There, we discussed why these places matter along with the importance and timing of this legislation.

The bill will protect more than 126,000 acres on the Olympic National Forest and designate 19 rivers and their tributaries as Wild and Scenic. In short, the legislation permanently ensures these places continue to stay wild and free flowing. You can learn more about it here.

To walk the river with someone is to share a personal and profound experience. We are reminded so quickly that we need the river, as human beings. We need the moments of serenity away from the business and noise of everyday life and to reconnect with the natural world. We need reminders that we are a part of an ecosystem, and our lives depend on the river.

 

“Come down someday, and we will take a walk along the river”- a favorite invitation of President Lyndon B. Johnson

 

When you walk a river with another person, you see them in a different way. President Johnson’s favorite invitation to his company was, “Come down someday, and we will take a walk along the river.” I imagine he accomplished much by this, when he extended that invitation to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, as they discussed protecting the river they hold dear. I also imagine he was able to make his points to protect his beloved river by allowing it to speak for itself.

When I received the invite to walk the Dungeness River with Senator Patty Murray, I knew that this was a big opportunity for the Wild Olympics and Scenic Rivers Act. I knew that once the senator experienced again what each of us can relate to when we walk the river, that she would bring the experience back with her to DC in her fight to get it through the senate.

Beyond the magnificence of the Dungeness, we talked about salmon.

As a lifelong salmon and steelhead angler, a former Olympic Peninsula fishing guide, and member of the Quinault Indian Nation, salmon are entangled with my very identity. All Pacific Northwest tribes, while each unique in their own regard, share a profound connection with the salmon. The salmon are intertwined with our economy, our ability to feed ourselves, our history, and our very societal structure. Salmon are important to the sportfishing community for some similar reasons. It is a heritage passed down, a major economic driver, a way to feed a family, and a welcome respite from the exhaustions of life.

I had the opportunity to talk to the senator about protecting rivers now. Salmon anglers know too well the anguish of trying to dig ourselves out of a fisheries disaster after it is too late. While our friends to the south on the Columbia River are saying goodbye to their summer steelhead runs, we have a sobering reminder that ‘too late’ can come swiftly and any reaction to save them is not a guarantee.

Even on the Olympic Peninsula, the story of the Quinault Blueback Sockeye demonstrates how damaging logging, culverts, and damaged habitat is on a fishery. The Quinaults have closed the fishery for multiple consecutive seasons, as the returns continue to decline for this special sockeye exclusive to the Quinault.

Perhaps the most important lesson we have learned about our salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, is that it is better to protect them proactively than it is to climb out of ‘too late’. When a forest is logged to the riverbanks, it takes time for that precious habitat to come back. When a dam is placed in a river, the damage is forever.

As we mourn our respective fisheries across the region, let us also be resolute in our opportunities to be proactive. Placing permanent protection on Olympic Peninsula rivers and land is a major win for salmon and steelhead. I am thrilled, and far from surprised, that Senator Murray saw the significance of this moment. She looked at these places with the same regard we do and is committed to pushing this legislation forward. Earlier this summer, she, along with Representative Derek Kilmer, re-introduced the plan. The bill passed out of the House with bipartisan support, and it has had a Senate committee hearing- it is close to getting to the president’s desk.

As we all go forward to help protect our fisheries, I hope more of us can use the river as our ally to win others over. It is what won you over, and me, and countless others. Say to your adversaries and to your friends, “come down someday, and we will take a walk along the river”. Hear people out on those banks and invite them to hear your perspective.

As a woman who lives at the intersections of many groups who are typically opponents, I find great joy in moments of cohesion and consensus. I am a sport fisher and an Indigenous woman, a member of two groups that share a dark history in the Pacific Northwest. In my ongoing quest to look for ways to bridge gaps between my two worlds, I often think about walks along the river. It is there that I trust others will look to solutions with longing and hope.

-Ashley