A Savanna Life in a Technological World

On Ditches and The Green New Deal

On Ditches and The Green New Deal

I want to talk about the Green New Deal. But I am going to talk about it through the lens of ditch cleaning in western Oregon agricultural land.


That’s what I want to talk about but I feel like I somehow I have to give you a sense of what was happening here on the ranch since the last time I wrote. But that was so long ago, I hardly know where to start. We shipped all the cattle one group at a time. They did not do as well as I had hoped, which I attribute to them doing so well in California before they came up here. I finished all the fences, we built eight miles this season. We got a ton of rain in September and it looked like the pastures were going to go under water all the way back in October. I was bummed because I wanted to mow all the pastures before winter. But then it stopped raining and we got all the pastures mowed, thank you Richard. We pulled out a bunch of old fence. There was a t-post in the road, I jumped out in a hurry and threw it in the back of the truck, cutting my finger on a post already in the back of the truck. I refused to do anything about it. Then proceeded to cut down a bunch of huge hemlocks next to the house, climbing sixty feet up them to set cables. After that my finger got very angry with me. It got infected and I am still stumbling over it as I type this. It was worth it to get those hemlocks and black berries out of there. There was probably a better way to do it though.


Ok, on with ditches.


Since the Fish Passage Act was implemented in 2007, we need permits to clean out agricultural ditches in western Oregon. And they don’t give out permits. This has, amazingly enough, resulted in all the ditches filling up with sediment. The same ditches that the salmon once used to access breeding and over wintering habitat. Those ditches were certainly not perfect salmon habitat. But is it better to have nothing? 


There are two assumptions that got us to this place. First is the idea that we (the average voter in Oregon and the agency people who write these rules) know how to recover salmon, without ever having done it before. Second, that the best way to recover salmon in Oregon is to do nothing. So the law makes it hard to do anything.


First, I don’t think that anyone knows the best way to recover salmon. I say this not as a fish expert but as a small business person. I had a lot of ideas about how to do these businesses when I was an armchair business person. But those ideas are hypotheses. They deal exclusively with how we think the world works in an untested way. In our businesses a substantial number of those ideas have gone splat against the wall of reality. The ones that have survived, at least well enough, continue. But even those have been radically re-worked so that they scarcely resemble the initial idea.


As an example, Two years ago I was writing in this blog about the importance of getting the forage short for biodiversity and production. Meanwhile I was sitting here with vegetation that was way too tall. As things stood, I couldn’t afford to graze the feed shorter and make my animals go hungry and lose a bunch of money because I was on a gain contract. Nor could I afford to leave it tall, because they would also not gain. Nor could I afford a tractor. I had to make amendments to my philosophical stance on how I was going to approach the world. I had to come up with a bunch of money to buy a mower and a tractor that could pull it and line up all the details required. I had to be sure enough it was going to work. I had to make a leap, again based on a hypothesis. I had to do it all quickly before the wheels fell off. Now the pastures look fantastic. I learned an important nuance to my previous idea; the grass was too tall for the cattle to effectively manage it, it had moved beyond their ecological amplitude. For someone in a sprawling bureaucracy with nebulous connections with the consequences of their actions and a bunch of someone else’s money, it can be hard to connect with reality in the same way.


Hard but not impossible. The actual agency people on the ground next to me at Fish and Wildlife have done real life stuff. They took risks and they put careers and reputations on the line to actually get something done. But I would submit that in the process their ideas have also changed. I suspect that after their project was done in 2018 they would have made some serious revisions to the fish passage law of 2007, if they could. But that law sits there. Unchanged. Now that fish passage law is a major hurdle for both of us to achieve what we want to achieve.


This whole law is predicated on the idea that if no one does anything to any of the waterways that the salmon will benefit. But in our valley there is the legacy of over a hundred years of waterway alteration. These alterations were performed with tools that were blunt instruments. The huge steam dredges of a hundred plus years ago physically could only dig ditches vertical sides that tend to slump into the ditch.  All the other smaller waterways have been straightened, cutoff, filled in and diverted such that they can no longer clean themselves out of sediment the way the natural channels did. The watershed as a whole has a land use that is very different from the one that salmon evolved in and sedimentation loads are much higher. So all the channels fill up with sediment, the channels that the salmon need. At least here, I think it is definitely possible that the salmon were better off before the law. I am sure we could have made things better, but I don’t think we did. Not here at least.  


Just as I had to make amendments to my philosophical orientation in order to mow these pastures, environmentalism as a whole is going to have to amend its worldview in order to transition from being a movement focused on protection, to a movement based on restoration and mitigation. The tactics that worked before can be a major impediment to us getting where we need to go. That process is way too slow for environmentalism as a movement to succeed or survive, if the average environmentalist is an armchair environmentalist; they vote for things they deem to be green, then go back to their jobs as tax lawyers, baristas, and middle managers. They don’t work with living ecosystems, they don’t solve problems, deal with setbacks, work with the costs as well as the benefits of any particular course of action. So they are slow to keep up, slow to amend their world view.


What does any of this have to do with The Green New Deal? Ah, everything. More on that next week.


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