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Matt Dickerson: On clean water and wild places

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Posted on March 8, 2017 |
By Matt Dickerson



In 1972, a few weeks before my ninth birthday, I visited Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway for the first time, enjoying a multi-day wilderness fishing trip with my father. We camped on a large pond between Umsaskis Lake and Long Lake, and explored the river from the Chase Rips all the way down to the Long Lake Dam. Though the Allagash did not have the same spectacular scenery as other rivers I would later visit in the Rockies and Alaska, over the next few years it became one of my favorite places on earth — a place I would return to over and over with my father, my brothers, and later my wife, children and friends. It is a place that has shaped my imagination.

In 2016, the Allagash celebrated the 50th anniversary of its official state of Maine designation as a “Wilderness Waterway.” In 2018 it will celebrate its 50th anniversary as a federally designated “Wild and Scenic River.” With a significant strip of land along the shoreline thereafter protected from logging activities, road-building, and further development, the river was able to keep its beautiful and wild character, and even to restore some of what had been lost due to activities of the previous century.

That 1972 camping trip to the Allagash was the first time I viewed a night sky not impacted by a single electric light, and where I first went a full day without hearing the sound of a combustion engine. More importantly, it was also at the Allagash that I first heard the distinctive calls of the American bittern, the common loon and Wesley’s snipe. It was there I saw my first osprey, bald eagle and moose. This is when bitterns and bald eagles, along with loons and osprey and moose and many other creatures, had been extirpated from most of the rest of New England by a combination of rampant pesticide use, water pollution from a host of sources, and habitat loss.

By contrast, in 1972 the Androscoggin River flowing through the town of Bethel (seven miles from where I went to kindergarten) was listed by Time magazine as one of the 10 filthiest rivers in the country. Lumber mills upriver (and downriver) flushed toxic chemicals right into the river, and several towns did the same with their raw sewage. Until a few years earlier, the nearby lake where my family lived had been used as a large log-storage container for two local mills. When working on my book “Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia,” I also read that lumberjacks in northern Maine used to pour oil into the streams to kill black flies, apparently unconcerned about killing most of the other creatures in and around the stream. When my family moved from Maine to eastern Massachusetts, I discovered that rivers there — like the Nashua, that flowed through the corner of my new hometown — seemed equally bad. Then there was Ohio’s infamous Cuyahoga River that actually caught on fire in 1969.

Fortunately, in 1972 Congress not only passed the Clean Water Act, but also banned the use of DDT as an agricultural pesticide. Osprey and bald eagles have returned to New England. Common loons have become common again to many of our cleaner or more remote lakes. Two decades after the Time magazine listing, the Androscoggin River near the Maine-New Hampshire border was becoming a blue-ribbon trout fishery.

Of course that doesn’t mean that all the wounds have been healed. Toxins remain in river bottoms a long time. Forests that are clear cut don’t come grow overnight, and mountaintops removed in Kentucky and West Virginia won’t grow back — at least not in the span of human lifetimes. Neither will the hundreds of miles of river that have been buried by the removal of those mountains. Extinct species don’t ever return, and in many cases extirpated species can’t be brought back either. One of the lessons I brought back from Wyoming after spending last summer studying native cutthroat trout is that it is much easier to protect a river (and all its life) in the first place than it is to try to restore a river after it has been ecologically damaged.

Which is why I’ve been troubled lately. The first troubling news emerged early in 2016: a move among some in Congress to sell off public lands — lands that have been instrumental for decades in preserving wild habitats in a way that is nearly impossible for private owners to do. More recent news has been even more disturbing: Our current administration wants to weaken many of the important environmental protections of clean air and clean water that made the recovery of places like the Androscoggin River possible. Now there are proposals to either dramatically cut the EPA budget — a budget that is barely a drop in the bucket of our overall national budget — or simply to eliminate the EPA altogether.

I think back on that first trip to the Allagash, and on my subsequent 45 years of outdoor activities ranging from fishing Otter Creek in downtown Middlebury to camping in remote wilderness areas. I’m not sure whether it was my love of outdoor sports, especially fishing, that gave me a love of clean water and wild places and the creatures that live there, or whether it worked the other way around: the beauty of wild places is what inspired my love of fishing. Probably some of both. Fly fishing has definitely nurtured not only a love, but a deeper knowledge of the habitats where fish live, and I come to care not only about the fish that I am passionately pursuing but about the whole place where they live and all the other life sharing the river or depending on it.

All of which is sort of a long side note. One of the things I enjoy about living in Vermont is the diversity of opinions, including around politics. If you are living in Addison County reading this article, you probably have a neighbor who voted for Trump, and a neighbor who voted for Clinton. And it’s not unlikely also a neighbor who voted Libertarian and one who voted Green. You certainly have one who voted for Bernie in the primary.

Yet despite the political diversity, there is an amazing unity in that Vermonters share a common care for nature, for clean water and clean air, and the wonderful habitats of our Green Mountains.

Maybe it comes from the high level of participation in outdoor sports. I read that Vermonters are second only to Alaskans in that regard. If you are a hunter, you may enjoy living on the edge of a national forest where there are no “Posted” signs. Or maybe you have never picked up a firearm in your life, but have enjoyed camping, cross-country skiing or hiking the Long Trail.

Or maybe it comes from our passion for good, local, healthy food, which both depends upon and leads back toward healthy soil. I’m sure there are other factors. Whatever the factors are, this collective understanding among Vermonters of the importance of protecting our clean earth and air and water seems to transcend politics in a very good way. I hope that transcendence continues. I hope everybody who loves to fish and hunt, or hike and camp and ski cross-country, or to live where we see moose and osprey and eagles, and where trout live in our streams, or just to live where there is clean soil and the good local food that grows in it, will continue to support the importance of the environmental protections and the public lands that make this all possible. 

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