(Seventh in an eight-part series on the history and successes of Pacific Rivers) —
Dan Kent was in a sedan, bumping down a long dirt driveway toward a farmhouse in the Willamette Valley. He was on his way to ask this farmer about growing wine grapes in a way that would be safer for salmon migrating through the nearby Willamette River.
It was the first farmer of many that he would ask. Since he grew up on a small farm, he felt like he knew how to talk to farmers. But he was working for an environmental group, this was the time of the spotted owl timber battles, and sometimes farmers don’t trust environmentalists. So he was nervous.
As his car bumped closer, he saw a truck parked in front of the house that read, “Stumps Don’t Lie.” He breathed a sigh of relief. “I was on friendly ground. A farmer who supports forest protection was someone I could talk to,” Kent said.
Kent is now the executive director of Salmon-Safe, a non-profit that certifies farms and urban sites managed in a way that help salmon thrive in their native habitats. That fateful day bumping down the dirt driveway in his compact sedan to meet with his first farmer, it was 1995 and he had just joined the staff of Pacific Rivers.
“We wanted to find a first farm that would be willing to test the idea of a new eco-label called Salmon-Safe,” he said.
A Salmon-Safe label on a bottle of wine would mean the customer knew the grapes had been grown in a way that maintained clean water and wildlife habitat. Salmon-Safe was not the first eco-label, but it was the first fish-related one, and the first from an environmental organization to catch on in a meaningful way.
How it all started – and why
In 1995, Pacific Rivers was eight years old. And it had had significant success using advocacy and litigation strategies to protect water and rivers in the upper parts of watersheds, which were mostly forested and mostly federally owned. Pacific Rivers’ executive director and founder, Bob Doppelt, wanted to launch a program that would help rivers lower down, in the valleys, where non-point source pollution was degrading water quality from mostly private lands. Advocacy and litigation would not work.
It seemed logical to try a market-based approach since these were private lands. A market-based approach also had the benefit of countering Pacific Rivers’ reputation as litigious and contrary. Although litigation and advocacy had been effective in protecting rivers and their watersheds on federal land, they didn’t do much for Pacific Rivers’ image with the farmers responsible for much of the stream habitat across the valley floors.
After interviewing farmers and other stakeholders, Pacific Rivers decided to launch an eco-label. An eco-label offered producers who wanted to do right on their land a leg up in the marketplace, more marketing power, and the possibility of commanding a higher price. They hired Kent. He was just finishing an MBA and was looking for an entrepreneurial challenge that allowed him to follow his passion for environmental conservation.
He’s been here ever since. Although Salmon-Safe spun off into its own nonprofit, the two organizations are still linked, as Pacific Rivers acts as a fiscal sponsor and the two are co-located with American Rivers in a river conservation hub office in downtown Portland.
Salmon-Safe has had many successes. One-third of Oregon’s vineyard acreage – nearly one-half in the Willamette Valley – has adopted Salmon-Safe certification practices. It has grown to over 800 farms and urban sites across the West Coast from British Columbia to northern California. Salmon-Safe has certified large organic farms, Portland’s city parks, and university and corporate campuses like Nike, University of Washington, and REI’s Puget Sound operations. Craft breweries across the country seek out Salmon-Safe certified hops, inspiring hop growers in Yakima and the Willamette Valley to transition hop farms to Salmon-Safe practices by phasing out harmful pesticides, reducing irrigation water use, and enhancing wildlife habitat on farms.
Yet to truly help salmon in Northwest rivers, Kent says the organization needs to work at a watershed scale. That means changing practices on large farms that grow commodities like wheat, grass seed, and dairy products. This is challenging. Unlike a bottle of wine, where the name of the farm is right on the label, the outputs from a farm producing wheat or apples are nearly impossible to identify on a grocery store shelf. Everything gets mixed together.
Measuring impact has also been challenging. Overall, Northwest wild salmon populations continue to decline. The Willamette Valley tributaries where Salmon-Safe has worked for nearly 20 years continue to have marginal water quality. There is yet to be a meaningful way to measure the effects of Salmon-Safe’s work beyond the restoration and water quality efforts done farm by farm, or urban project by urban project.
Nevertheless, we do know Salmon-Safe helps educate consumers about the connections between what happens on the land and what happens in the river. The connections extend beyond rivers as well, as Kent found years ago at a conference when he was approached by a botanist from the Sonoran Desert saying that, inspired by Salmon-Safe, he was working with growers in Jalisco, Mexico, to make “bat-friendly tequila” by harvesting agave later in season, which provides more nectar for bats.
“I still look for bat-friendly tequila in the liquor store,” Kent said.
by Natalie Henry Bennon