Reclamation: To Take Back, To Make Right, To Make Useful

Should we return areas to their natural state, or make them more accessible for human use? A difficult dilemma for those who strive to interact positively with the natural world.

Reclaimed wetlands

Thousands of acres of land have been reclaimed in an attempt to make areas more useful in the eyes of humans. Now, efforts are being made to reclaim lands not for profit or industry, but to save and honor the sacred history and relationships tied to them.

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In Reclaimers (University of Washington Press, 2015), Ana Maria Spagna discusses the current struggles that many individuals face regarding land reclamation. As she travels along the West Coast, she meets dedicated people who are making extraordinary efforts to save sacred lands and heal our relationship with nature. The following excerpt, from the prologue, presents a powerful introduction, discussing the emotional triumphs and defeats associated with this passionate work.

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The Low Ground

The two-acre property my wife, Laurie, and I own in Stehekin, a very small mountain town, divides cleanly in two: the high ground where we live now, atop an ancient moraine, and the low ground, where we lived years ago. In many ways, the halves are the same. Same trees. Same gravel road perimeter. Same mossy rocks. But while the high ground, these days, appears well-groomed — native shrubs line the driveway, high-limbed firs filter sunlight, a fourteen-hundred-square-foot cabin stretches the definition — the low ground has gone feral: crisscrossed with downed cottonwoods, littered with flood-strewn lumber, silty and splintered, discarded skis, rock rubble, and for a time, an unclaimed motorcycle helmet perched on a stump. No dwellings. Not anymore. One lone structure, a ramshackle garage half-sided and rat-infested, remains at the far end of the plat. We still use it for storage, so to retrieve our winter boots or a blow-up boat or a coffee can of lag screws, we must head down. But for a long time, I avoided the chore at all costs: procrastinating, excuse-making, dreading the sight of ground, supposedly our own, flushed, scoured, trashed, abandoned.

Truth is, the low ground was never much to brag about. When Laurie’s mother first saw the place, she wept. For good reason. A rusted off-kilter swing set lay in the yard alongside hardened bags of mortar, stockpiles of broken brick, and several untended outbuildings. Brush filled in the gaps: thimbleberries and Oregon grape and fireweed, all of it brown with road dust. The former owners, a family of seven, had lived in a small unfinished house sided with T1-11, and they’d made a hard go of it: a woodshed, a garden, a smokehouse, and a hog pen. They fled when a November flood brought the river charging to the doorstep, seeping through floorboards. They were rescued in the bucket of a front-end loader, and soon put the place on the market. And we, knowing all this, spent our life savings to buy it.

We had reason to weep, but we never did. We worked instead, the way only earnest new landowners can. We were used to manual labor — both Laurie and I had worked for years, by then, on backcountry trail crews for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, and Laurie still worked for the Park Service maintaining a historic apple orchard in the valley — and we were enamored, despite our left-leaning politics and our meager means, of the American Dream. We planned, eventually, to move to high ground, safely away from the danger of floods, but in the meantime we tore out moldy carpet and started anew: plumbing, insulating, stacking wood. We even planted a garden or, I should say, replanted the one that had washed to rubble in that November flood, then gone to weeds in one fallow summer. Reclaimed it, you might say.

We dug in cedar posts and spent $300 — a small fortune at the time — on concrete mesh, strung it eight feet high to keep the deer and bear out, and added compost and minerals to the rocky soil. One day when I was preparing to plant potatoes, the neighbor’s cat, Daisy, nudged up beside me, reared up on her hind paws, and began to dig full bore. With no idea what the purpose was, she threw herself at the task. I’m telling you: she was one of us, this cat.

That was seventeen years ago now, but it seems so much longer. Floods ripped through the low ground not once but three times, leaving firewood scattered, cedar posts askew. Soil from the garden washed downvalley to fertilize brambles that finger now through misshapen rolls of mesh. We left the house empty, and we skedaddled. Daisy moved with us, trailing us to high ground with the neighbors’ blessing, claiming us and gifted to us both. Each fall I stand boot-tangled in blackberries to buck former cedar fence posts into chunks to split for kindling and fight a gnawing sense of loss.

But what did we lose? Not our lives, not our property. A neighbor couple had to sell off their flooded land, their summer home for over fifty years, to the government since there’d be no way to avoid future floods and likely no willing private buyers. We lost nothing, really, other than three hundred bucks, a garden spot, and a few thousand hours of labor. Still I wonder: Was it worth it? What was it all for? Sometimes I can’t face the low ground. Even though it’s what we planned to see happen, even though I love that David Byrne song about parking lots turning to daisies with a passion, I can’t face it. Sometimes I need to get the hell out.

Defining Reclamation

What happened on the low ground — what we accomplished, what we failed to accomplish, what, if anything, we need to reaccomplish — is what first got me thinking about reclamation. As long as I could remember, I thought the word had only to do with dams. The Bureau of Reclamation. Founded in 1902, tasked with reclaiming the arid West, making the desert bloom, building dams, dams, dams. By the late 1980s, when I landed in an auditorium-packed environmental studies class at college, the word held the scourge of outmoded arrogance: concrete oversized turbines, men with dress shirts stretched tight over their bellies, slide rules in their pockets, and god on their side. John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid provided the prototype in Floyd Dominy, longtime commissioner of the Bureau. A few years later, when I landed on trail crew, a job that required stubborn work-in-the-dirt contrariness, I began to see outmoded arrogance in the counterview as well. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert had predicted catastrophes of siltation that never quite materialized, not yet at least. Then there was Dominy’s antagonist in Archdruid, environmental superhero David Brower, whose crusade to save the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon from proposed dams in the 1960s, laudable as it was, offers little insight on how to provide water to the millions of people who’ve since flocked to the Southwest. When I taught Archdruid to college freshmen in the 1990s, mostly from suburban Phoenix, they approached the entire controversy with head-scratching befuddlement. After three full weeks, one young woman, one of the best students in the class, raised her hand to ask: How do they decide which side of the dam the lake goes on?

I realized, then, that I’d omitted some crucial content, and also how little any of us understand the whole concept.

I looked up a definition.

Reclaim:

1. to recall from wrong or improper conduct

2. to rescue from an undesirable state; also : to restore to a previous natural state <reclaim mining sites> b : to make available for human use by changing natural conditions <reclaim swampland>

What is wrong or improper conduct when it comes to the natural world? What is an undesirable state? Where is the moral high ground? (Or, for that matter, the low ground?) And who decides? Judgments cycle. Fire is bad, fire is good. Predators are bad, predators are good. And with the judgments, so go our actions: Put out fires, start prescribed fires. Eliminate predators, reintroduce predators. Like Sisyphus on a hamster wheel. More to the point, aren’t at least two of those definitions at odds with one another: to restore to a natural state and to make available for human use?

Still, what was most beguiling about the word was also what appealed to me. At some point in our recent history, and with good reason, a lot of us, the nature-minded, had become distrustful about messing with forests or floodplains or fish or, well, almost anything. The distrust was underscored by a deep throbbing sadness for all that had gone wrong, all that was still going wrong, much of it seemingly our own fault. Climate change was the biggest example. Close to home in Stehekin we’d seen shrinking glaciers and those increasingly frequent debilitating floods and bigger, hotter wildfires to boot. There were more insidious troubles, too. We’d seen a rash of cancer among our friends: young people, physically fit people, people who’d never touched a cigarette hacking themselves to death in hospital beds. You couldn’t help but wonder about airborne pollutants trapped in fir needles released during forest fires or poisons from long-abandoned mountainside mines in our well water or polymers in the plastic bottles we drank snowmelt from. What had we done to our world? And what, if anything, could we do to make it right?

There were plenty of words to choose from — conservation, preservation, restoration — but most seemed to presume an idealized state, either one you cling to or one you try to recreate. If there were a word that might lead toward an answer, I thought, it’d have to be one that could hold contradiction, like nature itself. Mistakes and forgiveness. Creation and destruction and renewal. Reclamation. The word, I decided, came down to three concepts: to take back, to make right, and to make useful. The connotation was both moral and pragmatic, and sometimes the results were disastrous, but reclaiming seemed a nearly unstoppable human instinct.

One gray December — after yet another flood and the deaths of two close friends — Laurie and I drove a thousand miles south to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area west of Redding, California. Laurie had been hired to work on old apple trees planted by early settlers and barely hanging on. Over the years, the trees had been stunted by lack of sunlight, shaded by oaks and sequoias, strangled by blackberries. You get the picture. Nothing was going well for these trees until Laurie showed up. Never mind that at home she does exactly the same kind of work or that, except for this job, she’d be laid off for the season and we’d be skiing, her favorite pastime. She didn’t need the money. She wanted to work on the trees because they needed it, but also because she wanted to honor the fact that someone worked like hell to plant them. You might think this had to do with what happened on our low ground, but it had more to do with her nature, and maybe human nature: she wanted to reclaim those trees.

Before she began, Laurie asked permission to burn as she went along. This is how she disposes of pruned limbs back home, and the warmth, in December, would be welcome. No way, the managers said. There’s a midden. Rats? Laurie asked. No, no. An archaeological midden, a mound of obsidian chips several feet deep, the shavings from Indian tool makers, the Wintu, who lived at that spot along Clear Creek and in the surrounding Trinity Mountains, for twelve hundred years. Fire would melt the chips and destroy evidence of how they lived and worked. Rare evidence. Okay, then.

To be clear, Whiskeytown is not mainly about apple trees. Like most federally designated recreation areas, it’s a reservoir, this one created in the early 1960s by an earthen dam. President Kennedy famously attended the dedication. Each morning after I dropped Laurie off to prune, watching her start a small chainsaw to cut through dormant vines, I stopped beside the human-made lake and gazed at the hills, lush and green even in December. Every single time I did, I saw other people standing on the shore looking out: young and old, well-dressed and shabby, a mother and daughter, a man in a business suit, all of them on their way from somewhere to somewhere else. They stood stone-still and stared, taking solace from the uncluttered view, the human-free landscape, all that water. The reclaimed lake was lovely, sure, but I was still troubled. Park brochures described how, on clear summer days, you could look down from a kayak and see the Old West storefronts of Main Street shimmering under the surface. The problem with reclaiming, I found myself thinking, is that it so often leads to displacing.

No Easy Solution

Back home in Stehekin, a river management plan had been in the works for months, a plan guaranteed to be unpopular. Stehekin consists of a patchwork of private property, about four hundred acres, tucked within the boundaries of Lake Chelan Recreation Area, which is managed by North Cascades National Park Service Complex. (There’s a lake, yes, a natural one, though a dam raised its level by twenty feet in the 1920s.) The Park Service didn’t arrive until the late 1960s, and the large-scale government presence isn’t always welcome. The river plan would be a case in point.

A public meeting was scheduled. The gist was this: the Stehekin River needs more wiggle room, more freedom to wander, to crest its banks on occasion and seep outward democratically. No longer should dikes or dredging direct the course. At the meeting, National Park Service officials, many of them friends, arrived with PowerPoint presentations in hand, prepared to explain how these structures once built to protect us from floods now exacerbate the problem by sending the river pinballing toward the opposite shore and increasing erosion. They planned to describe a new series of small-scale structures and road relocations. But they got no chance. The room was super-packed with attendees spitting mad.

How did they not know of these plans? they cried. Plans they believed to be a subterfuge, a ruse to allow the feds to acquire private property from folks like my summer neighbors who’d sold out, to forcibly displace them.

I checked my watch, jiggled my feet, bowed my head to my chest. I did not look at our seething neighbors, did not glance over at Laurie sitting beside me, still in her work boots, did not risk eye contact with our silent baffled friends in ill-fitting Park Service uniforms — worn only on occasions like this — with their PowerPoints on permanent pause. I tried not to listen to the angry voices, only to the sounds underneath: the hum of laptop fans kicking on, the splash of wind-driven waves on the lake, Canadian geese honking in flight. Mostly I fought nausea. Razor-edged tension stretches through life in our idyllic little valley. Outsiders sometimes look at us with condescending mirth. (“What’s the controversy this week?”) How petty our battles seem, how transparently ideological. (Government is good! Government is bad!) From the inside, the struggles feel murkier — we own property, yes, we work for the Park Service, yes — and the strain feels visceral.

Who knows? I thought. The angry people might be right. The river management plan offered four alternatives that ranged from no action to degree variations on a theme: removal of structures and facilities from the channel migration zone. I read them several times, and I could not for the life of me make sense of them. I did know this much: A whole lot of private property in the valley, including our low ground, lay smack in the middle of the so-called channel migration zone, and the river was poised to reclaim it.

At the meeting, one man stood to say this:

“Remember this is Mother Nature. She might seem beautiful and docile, but really she’s a bitch. You have to put her in her place, show her who’s boss.”

Chastise, he said, or maybe: Harness.

What's It Really For?

At Whiskeytown, while Laurie pruned, I set off in search of the story of who lived there before the dam and where they went. Not so much what. I could pretty much guess the fate of the fish and the forest, and while I did want to know about that, my sympathy right then lay mostly with the settlers in the drowned town and the Native people, the Wintu, before them.

A visitor center overlooked the placid lake, oil-dark on the surface. Around the shore low clouds fingered like smoke through dense green foliage toward a ridge brined with early wet snow. Inside, the place seemed much like a Park Service visitor center anywhere. Kids’ books preached water conservation. Guidebooks described native plants. Coffee-table books featured photography of Indian basketry.

“What happened to the Wintu?” I asked the volunteer ranger, a middle-aged woman who told me she’d grown up in a nearby town and recently returned to the area.

“They moved on,” she said. “They headed for the hills.”

Three kiosk exhibits described the dam’s construction and the local large mammal populations: deer, bear, cougar. The place felt like a kind of subsidized apology. But for what? I read descriptions of the dam construction, then reread them more closely. The idea was ambitious as hell — to dam the Trinity River, which flows west, and reverse the flow into the Sacramento River drainage to the east — and the details of construction were staggering: eight miles of tunnels 17.5 feet in diameter, 480,000 cubic yards of dirt to be excavated and relocated. The end result was piddling. Two powerhouses on the Whiskeytown reservoir generate a combined 300 megawatts today. (This was, I’d learn, peanuts by hydropower standards in the Pacific Northwest. None of the dams on the Columbia River generates less than a thousand megawatts.) And the reservoir provides irrigation, about 5,000 acres’ worth. For this payoff, they’d reverse a river, flood a town, drown countless archaeological sites? I doubted it.

On Saturday, Laurie’s day off, we met old friends and took a long walk beside the Sacramento River. The week had been rainy, but now the temperature registered balmy, shirt-sleeve warm. Dry yellow grass glistened in thin winter sun.

“But what’s it really for?” I asked.

Our friend shrugged.

“Whiskeytown? That dam’s for recreation.”

“That’s it. Recreation?”

“Of course,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want a lake in a valley that’s over 100 degrees three months of the year?”

I was stunned. I’d convinced myself that people who reclaim things always have some decent purpose in mind, but that’s the problem: the definition of a decent purpose is shifty. In a book about the national recreation area, I’d highlighted a quote from President Kennedy at the 1963 dedication.

“How great was the danger,” he said, “that this great natural inheritance of ours given to us by nature, given to us by God, would be wiped away, the forests ruined, the streams destroyed, wasted for the people, water going to the sea unused.”

John F. Kennedy. 1963. He meant wasted if there wasn’t a dam.

In a photograph beside the quote, he feeds a mule deer.


Reprinted with permission from Reclaimers by Ana Maria Spagna and published by University of Washington Press, 2015.