By — Janet Stevens / The Bulletin
Published: June 15. 2012 4:00AM PST
This is one way the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines society: “a community, nation, or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities and interests.” It’s a definition that, in many ways, describes what we have here in Oregon and, more broadly, in the United States as a whole.
Oregon is pretty typical of Western states, I’d argue. We’re well-equipped with men and women who think nothing of traveling 120 miles for a short meeting; many of us believe that almost nothing is worse than wearing a suit or high heels; and we’d do almost anything for a weekend outdoors.
And we love our salmon.
We should. They and their ancestors have been part of Oregon history for at least 7 million years, and Indian tribes across much of the state historically relied on salmon as a staple food to be treasured as well as eaten. In Central Oregon, the Warm Springs Indians are among the four tribes that signed treaties with the United States in 1855 granting them perpetual fishing rights on the Columbia River.
It’s the tribes’ history with salmon that is particularly wrenching. The United States granted those 1855 fishing rights in exchange for a substantial chunk of Oregon land, then did not do terribly much to protect the resource. Both state and federal governments have been taken to court more than once to ensure that their salmon promise was kept.
Meanwhile, some of what keeps salmon healthy occurs far from the Columbia River. Whychus Creek, near Sisters, was home to both salmon and steelhead (an oceangoing trout) until the 1960s, when Pelton and Round Butte dams, plus a re-regulating dam, were completed on the Deschutes River. The dams effectively blocked the fish from their childhood homes and spawning grounds there. A huge joint effort by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and Portland General Electric has, everyone hopes, made fish passage in both directions on the river a reality once again.
Whychus Creek itself was made largely uninhabitable for both salmon and steelhead when it was narrowed and straightened. Today, thanks to the combined efforts of the Deschutes Land Trust, the U.S. Forest Service and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, the creek is allowed to meander through Camp Polk Meadow, as it was meant to do.
None of this came cheap. Federal dollars were poured in by the bucketful, and PGE ratepayers are picking up some of the tab for work on the dams. Donors to the land trust received deductions on their income taxes in exchange for their financial support of the cause.
Some critics argue that the whole thing was a big waste of government money at a time when there’s not enough to go around. The problem, they contend, is compounded by burdening PGE ratepayers and by granting tax deductions to private donors.
Yet it’s the federal government that allowed the dams to be built in the first place, at a time when their likely impact on fish was known. As for PGE ratepayers, one could argue that they’ve benefited for 40 years from the ample, relatively inexpensive power the dams produce.
Finally, there’s the charitable deduction for private donors. Like it or not, those who give money to causes are encouraged to do so by current tax law, and those causes run the gamut from fish habitat restoration to the financial health of orchestras, artists and acting companies. Meet the requirements to become a nonprofit agency, and your supporters are entitled to that tax break.
That’s as it should be, I believe. If the government is going to encourage charitable giving, it can hardly put itself in the position of deciding which cause is worthy and which is not. There are those who firmly believe that if patrons of the arts will not support them, those arts should be allowed to die, just as there are those who think money spent on fish is a waste of cash.
That giving, whether to salmon or to children’s causes or to the arts, is part of what makes American society what it is today. It’s a part of our culture, just as salmon are part of the culture of Oregon.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin.
Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2011