Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Oil Trains, Salmon, and Dead Heads: Management Without Stewardship. A letter by Danner Christensen.

Oil Trains, Salmon, and Dead Heads: Management Without Stewardship

A few years ago, fisheries and forestry managers pursued an aggressive campaign to clear logs and debris from Northwest streams and rivers.  The goal was to “improve” the efficiency of the migratory wild salmon “highway.”  It viewed the declining salmon numbers as a “factory process” problem.  Tinker with the steps in the “production line,” raise enormous numbers of fish in fish factories (hatcheries), dump them in streams and rivers and Presto!, problem solved.

Of course, the folly of cleaning streams of logs and debris destroyed the very environment the salmon needed to survive and flourish. Local author and career salmon biologist Jim Lichatowich, in his beautifully written book, Salmon, Place and People, calls this misguided activity “Management without Stewardship”.  

What is missing, he argues persuasively, is the lack of understanding of, or willful ignoring of, what the salmon actually need to thrive. This mindset ignores the salmon’s habitat, its interactions within its complex biological web, and the larger environmental and cultural impacts if it becomes extinct.  In a certain sense, it ignores the salmon’s “community,” and fails to exercise stewardship over it.

In Columbia County active stewardship would display an understanding and appreciation of our complex community.  It would give equal weight to maintaining our community safety, curtailing pollution of all kinds, protecting livability, and sustaining the natural world where the community lives. Yes, it also means job creation and growth, but not just any industry, any job, at any cost.

In the past I’ve seen very little evidence that the Columbia County and Port of St. Helens (POSH) commissioners have exercised this broader responsibility of community stewardship beyond their narrow management goals.   Particularly at POSH meetings, more than one citizen has come away feeling that their stewardship questions and concerns have been met with an attitude of dismissive condescension, bordering on arrogance, from some commissioners and their hired staff.

1,429. That number represents the number of children and young people at Scappoose High School, Middle School and Grant Watts elementary school.  This doesn’t even count the hundreds of adults who work in or visit these 3 schools every day. Two of these schools are very close together and none sits more than a block from the railroad tracks.

On November 13th, 2013, the Port of St. Helens (POSH) commissioners voted unanimously to allow increasing the number of long oil trains in our county to 38 per month by 2015.  The approval was given despite widely known and easily discovered information about the explosive nature of Bakken crude oil, and the DOT111 oil tankers that carry it.  Those tanker cars are susceptible to puncture, rupture, and have easily damaged valves.  Either the commissioners were not aware of these dangers before their decision, or they knew and proceeded anyway.  Both show a frightening lack of stewardship for our community in the pursuit of their narrowly focused management goals.

To give credit where it’s due, the County commissioners decided to exclude coal from their approval for the zone change at Port Westward. I would be more inclined to see it as an act of true community stewardship, if the same stroke of the pen did not doom over 800 acres of valuable farmland to ultimate destruction.  At the recent POSH public meeting with Portland & Western railroad representatives, some commissioners pressed hard for information about P&W insurance coverage for injury, property damage, and environmental destruction should an accident occur in our community.  I hope they keep it up, as these are the questions responsible stewards of the community must insist be answered.

Finally, I cannot seem to get the image of the public display of rotting cattle heads out of my brain. To me, a POSH commissioner allowing this display on her property reveals either an inability or unwillingness to practice stewardship in her own neighborhood. It displays her failure to take her share of responsibility for the harmony, esthetics, environment and safety on her own street.  Addressing citizens’ stewardship concerns about the trains, she has publicly stated that citizens who don’t like it should just move. Can any voter seriously expect her to wield her power for the stewardship of the entire community?

We the people of Columbia County must not allow our complex community to be damaged by management without stewardship, as happened to the Pacific wild salmon.  We have a right and responsibility to insist that our elected officials display action, evidence and transparency in their stewardship of this community that we love, and not just present reassuring platitudes and press releases.
I for one will not be moving as suggested.  Along with ever increasing numbers of community voters, I will stay and fight for meaningful stewardship of this home that I love.  We all invite our elected officials to join us.

Danner Christensen
Founder, Envision Columbia County
St. Helens OR

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