(First in an eight-part series on Pacific Rivers’ history and successes)
— by Bob Doppelt —
I have been a river guide most of my life. I have also been a university professor, and a psychologist working with troubled youth. When I burned out on all of that, I went back to the places I always loved most: rivers.
My wife and I started a rafting company called Oregon River Experiences in 1977, and during the 10 years we ran it, the rivers of the Pacific Northwest changed. It was a moral assault to be out there on the Rogue River or the Deschutes River and see scum, oil slicks and trash floating down the river. And it turned the clients off.
I decided to do something about it. In 1987, at the urging of a woman who worked for the Friends of Columbia Gorge, a friend – Rick George – and I started a non-profit called the Oregon Rivers Council. We met with Senator Mark Hatfield’s staff and told them what was happening to Oregon rivers. And they were genuinely concerned. They said if we put together a coalition, they could get a bill passed in Congress that would designate important reaches of Oregon rivers as wild and scenic.
In its first year, working mostly out of my garage, the Oregon Rivers Council built a coalition and did something that no group had done before and no group has done since: passed the largest river protection act in the history of the lower 48 states. The Omnibus Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1988 protected 40 rivers totaling 1,500 miles.
We were ecstatic. Until scientists told us it wasn’t enough.
The wild and scenic rivers legislation did prevent dams from being built in designated areas. It kept flows reasonable, and prevented energy and mineral extraction. But it didn’t affect anything happening next to the rivers, or upstream. It didn’t change activity in the watershed.
The year was now 1989. And very few people besides scientists knew or understood the word watershed. The Oregon Rivers Council decided to change that.
A watershed is all of the land around a river or stream that drains into the river. The boundaries between different watersheds tend to be the ridges between different rivers and streams — the highest points. Gravity brings rainwater, snowmelt and spring water down into the river corridor. The council embarked on a project to get people who lived in, worked in, and cared about each watershed together to make management decisions. And the idea of watershed councils was born.
We started by establishing the McKenzie Watershed Council in Lane County. And as we shopped the idea around to elected officials, farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists, it turned out to be something all of them could support. When we got the support of the most conservative member of the Lane County Commission, I remember thinking, “Okay. This is going to happen.”
A year later, I wrote the original bill for the state legislature to establish and fund watershed councils around the state, which was signed into law in 1993. Now there are more than 100 watershed councils working collaboratively around the state to improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and economic opportunity. I co-wrote a book about watersheds, and the trend caught on nationally. We wanted to expand our model beyond Oregon, and we became the Pacific Rivers Council.
The Oregon Rivers Council went on to do other amazing work as well, including getting coho salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act, protecting watersheds in the Northwest Forest Plan, and establishing the economic value of protected resources. But it all comes back to watersheds.
Bob Doppelt co-founded Pacific Rivers in 1987 with Rick George. Currently he is executive director of The Resource Innovation Group.