I visited the Klamath Basin recently, just below Crater Lake on the border between Oregon and California. It is a giant river basin that not long ago was a vast wetland fed by snow off the back of the Cascade Range. It must have been a sight from the slopes of Mount Mazama. Must have housed a startling number of birds, among so many other animals and plants.
We don’t really understand wetlands. Over the past few centuries we’ve treated them as useless, cesspools to be filled in and farmed or otherwise developed. We didn’t know the intricacies of the hydrologic cycle, didn’t appreciate the delicate and amazing system of life it supported, couldn’t see a wetland’s amazing beauty. If you need an example, take a look sometime at the convoluted and naïve way the federal government defines wetlands. It’s a mess that willfully ignores what we know about the importance, the fragility, and the interconnectivity of such areas. It isn’t too surprising. Most of us have little experience with this rare waterscape.
The Klamath Basin is home to a wetland that is federally protected as a wildlife refuge for fish and migratory birds–the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge. Now, “refuge.” To me, the word evokes a place of safety, a temporary escape from some threat or danger. Indeed, migratory birds need refuges. Wetlands are themselves natural refuges for birds to rest and refuel on thousand-mile journeys, a place to escape most predators and find shallow waters conveniently teeming with life.
I decided to take a cold fall morning to visit the site, walk a while, and maybe get some pictures. I thought it would be peaceful to go out and explore a bit, maybe commune with the birds. What I got was a small arms warzone. From 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. the place is a hunting ground. Of the dozens of guys I saw in the area, I was the only person without a weapon. I actually felt a little stupid for being there for fear of getting shot or of scaring up a bird and getting it killed. This wasn’t a refuge; this was a trap. The ducks looked askance even at my camera.
We get some poor terms from the past. “Conservation” is a good example. Conservation sounds to most of us like a good thing, conjuring up images of saving or protecting. But Conservation has often been aligned with notions of human use and contrasted with “Preservation,” seeking to provide protected areas of harvest (be that for ducks, trees, or other such “resources”) rather than to reverse modern shortsightedness for the natural world. It’s like a “healthy forest” initiative that paves the way for mauling forests. But a refuge that isn’t a refuge borders on silly. It may be a refuge for some humans on the weekend, I suppose, but not for those migratory birds that rely on it. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt really uncomfortable for them, perhaps with them.
These contradictions are all-too-common and stem from our ignorance, our willfulness, and our hubris. For me, standing in this wetland, I am humble, thoughtful, and hopeful. And I used to carry a shotgun like these guys. I see and feel so much more here than dinner.
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