I was their teacher and student. I talked about what Idaho Rivers United does to protect and restore Idaho’s rivers; they shared with me unbridled enthusiasm for that work.
The lesson they taught me: our work matters, and it matters a lot.
This might not seem like the most revolutionary epiphany. After all, the reason I work at Idaho Rivers United is because I believe in the scope of work and mission. Above all else, I believe in truth and transparency, and those are qualities that underlie all of what we do to protect and restore rivers in Idaho.
In a political environment where “environmentalist” is increasingly used as a four-letter word, it can be difficult to feel good about the hard-earned gains you make—when you make them at all. Our culture sometimes seems to lose touch with the reasons we enacted the Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and other legislation designed to safeguard water, wildlife, wild places and our own health, which depends on a healthy environment.
That’s why I valued what I was taught a few years ago by a group of travelers from China when my students became my teachers.
It was an engagement unlike any I’d participated in my half dozen years of river advocacy. It wasn’t an audience whose political action I sought or whose memberships I tried to obtain. I didn’t try to convince them about the validity of any of IRU’s campaigns. I simply talked about the work IRU has accomplished since its founding and the goals that remain. I showed them pretty pictures of Idaho’s rivers. I showed them not-so-pretty pictures of the threats those rivers face.
Traveling as part of an outfit called Last Descents, the group from China had spent the previous couple days rafting various forks of the Payette River and was about to embark on a week-long trip down the Main Salmon River. Last Descents is a river outfitter with a big mission, which is to help effect environmental protection for some of the most threatened and degraded rivers on Earth.
“We believe that by bringing people to the rivers of western China, and showing them a once in a lifetime experience, that we can create a reason to preserve them,” reads the website. “If we persist, some of these rivers will be saved for the enjoyment of generations to come.”
The reason I was on their list of speakers was to help show what is possible when citizens speak up and speak out on behalf of preserving natural resources. The reason they were in Idaho was to experience what smart environmental regulations and activism can achieve, to actually immerse themselves in crystal-clear rivers overshadowed by towering pines.
I told them that our most frequent adversary in our work to protect and restore Idaho’s rivers was our government, which sometimes seems more closely aligned with industrial interests than with the interests of everyday Americans, a statement that rings truer now than it has in decades. The travelers told me it was the same in China.
I told them that IRU regularly sues federal and state governments to get them to uphold their own environmental regulations. I stressed that we rarely lose those lawsuits. With this, I realized, they were surprised, impressed and actually regarded me as something of a hero.
Notwithstanding the obvious political differences between democratic and communist nations, it became clear to me that at Idaho Rivers United we do something every day that people in China wish they could: challenge and even sue their government to defend clean, free-flowing rivers that are filled with healthy fish.
Idaho is an excellent example for China to follow. It has some of the nation’s finest and best protected rivers, but that also means it has a lot to lose. Moreover, we sometimes forget that Idaho also has several of the nation's most polluted and degraded waterways.
Following decades of mining pollution, the Coeur d’Alene River in North Idaho is an ongoing Superfund site in need of hundreds of millions more in cleanup efforts to remove toxic heavy metals. The Snake River in southern Idaho was coined “Idaho’s sewer system” by High Country News in 2014 and flushes tons of agricultural waste downstream each year. The Salmon River has all but lost its endangered wild salmon because of wasteful dams downstream in Washington state. These are only three of our best back-yard examples of what happens when industry and government are allowed to go too far unchecked.
At a time when national dialogue in the U.S. is centered on rolling back environmental regulations rather than strengthening them the tables have already begun to turn. Other nations, including China, have identified an opportunity to assume global leadership in combating climate change and pursuing clean energy sources.
This needs to be our line in the sand. The United States already learned these lessons in the 1960s and 1970s when smog choked our cities, rivers flowed thick with sludge and our precious wild places were being developed at an ever-more-rapid pace. Since then we’ve developed a system of environmental regulations and public land protections that are the envy of the world—but only if we stand by them.