Restoring the environment is a good thing. Or maybe not?

Glines Canyon Dam Removal
The Glines Canyon Dam in Washington State undergoing removal. Image courtesy Real Science.

One of the great things about speculative fiction is the power to challenge strongly held values in the safety of a society that exists only in the writer’s imagination. In the Pacific Northwest, at least on the wet side of the Cascade Mountains, we’re all “green,” that is, we believe in letting trees grow unmolested, planting salmon in urban creeks, and giving orcas lots of space to swim. Environmentalism is a sacred value, and therefore, a target, as far as I’m concerned.

We assume conservation is a good thing, and by the same token, restoration. We are redeemed if we restore a forest, a lake, a mountain, or a stream to the way it was before civilization altered it. For my money, the most dramatic example of this in recent years is the 2012 removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River in northwest Washington State. Removal is intended to reestablish one of the most productive salmon runs in the Lower 48, and by early accounts, the project has bright prospects for success.

The removal of these dams reminded me of a family trip. When I was about eight years old, circa 1967, my family lived in Yakima, Wash., an agricultural town in the dry, eastern part of the state. We took a day trip to Wanapum Dam, at the time one of the newest dams on the Columbia River, the river best known for the Grand Coulee Dam, the world’s biggest dam when it was finished in 1942. The river is almost entirely dammed now. The outing to Wanapum Dam left me with strong memories of enormous generators and the brilliance of engineers who had harnessed a river to grow food, provide jobs, and inspire an eight-year-old boy.

Forty-eight years later, we’re calling the environmentalists who advocated the removal of the Elwha River dams “heroic,” not the engineers who built the dams. The latter are all dead now, and their values are viewed today as mistaken, quaint, or ignorant, at least in the environmental community. Activists have targeted other Northwest dams for removal, particularly on the Snake River, a major tributary of the Columbia. In a generation, “progress” has given way to “conserve,” and “restore” is on the ascendant.

For someone who loves speculative fiction, and likes to write it, the natural question is: Where does restoration lead? For me, the answer is not necessarily a win-win for everyone. In my (as yet) unpublished novel, Carbon Run, I imagine a world ravaged by climate change in which environmental protection is an imperative for human survival. To address this need, society has designed institutions to protect what’s left at all costs. In this world, the Bureau of Environmental Security is respected and feared.

What if, in the name of restoration, the BES mandated the removal of all dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries? And what if a community that depended on the dams for irrigation and the job of running the dam said No? When the environment is restored, who loses? That’s the premise of my newest novel project, which I’m calling Restoration.

The novel takes place in the same world as Carbon Run, sometime in the next century. The protagonist, Ed Wye, a brilliant engineer/entrepreneur with a recent history of failure, gets the job to remove the dam. The antagonist, Covington Rast, the biggest landowner and farmer in the region dependent on the dam’s water, is determined to stop the removal. Wye has a reputation to win back; Rast has a livelihood and a family legacy to lose.

That’s all I’m going to say about the novel now, but I’ll let you know when it’s ready to share.

2 thoughts on “Restoring the environment is a good thing. Or maybe not?

  1. Now that’s an interesting-and novel (pun intended)- premise. The photo is amazing too. All digits crossed for the success of this book, Joe!


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