If we’re being honest about our work, some days and some efforts can feel like fire drills: the release of a new budget from the Governor’s Office, a derailed train car spilling hazardous materials, or lakes and streams literally drying up before our eyes. While there is never a shortage of immediate issues in need of attention, the work of environmental stewardship and conservation is, by its very nature, about taking the long view.
Our 10th annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival (in Madison on March 29, with an inaugural companion event set for April 20 in Green Bay) showcases a number of films that celebrate the persistence and the payoff of bigger picture projects. One of this year’s films, The Super Salmon, reminded us of a major recent undertaking that exemplifies the long view: the fish passage project to help lake sturgeon pass through dams on the Menominee River to get back to their native spawning and nursery grounds.
Consider for starters the lifespan of the sturgeon—an average of 55 years for males and 80-150 years for females. Fish that survive the boundaries of a century can help us put our work into a much broader context and perspective. River Alliance was one of many groups that came together to make fish passage on the Menominee River a reality, along with state and federal agencies such as the DNR and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Native American tribes, hydroelectric power companies, and a host of other government and non-government organizations.
The collaborative effort was years in the making as scientists noted declining numbers and it became clear that dams on the Menomonie were preventing the fish from getting where they naturally wanted and needed to go. “The sturgeon has a long life and these fish have been patient,” said Rob Elliott of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Their numbers were really low since the late 1800s and they have been essentially waiting for us to restore and improve their habitat.”
A window opened due to the fact that licenses for hydroelectric dams are typically issued for 30-50 years and a major dam was up for relicensing. The project team knew if the fish passage project didn’t advance as planned, it could be decades before they had another chance.
(If you’re not familiar with this project or have never seen a fish elevator in action, we highly recommend the following videos to provide an overview of the project.)
Elliott is pleased that the collaboration and work has so far paid off, but, because of the nature of this effort and the lifespan of the fish, a generation could pass before real results or population increases are proven.
“It’s a real challenge to watch and monitor over such a long period of time, and then you all realize that eventually other people will be sitting in your positions, so you have to be really careful to put equipment and processes in place that will last,” he said. “After a few years we’ve started seeing some encouraging patterns, but this is something we will be watching for many more years to come. We’re looking at what will likely be very slow growth over maybe 100 years as a result of doing one thing different—passing fish upstream over the dam.”
Of course, even when you’re looking ahead 100 years, projects—like the fish passage project—that involve a high level of cooperation, collaboration, planning and implementation can have days that feel like fire drills. But it could be the beep of a transmitter or the successful passage of one fish that provides the inspiration to keep going … that, and the relationships that form as a result. Elliott concludes, “If not for this project, we never would have had a chance to work with electric companies and some of the other groups. We would have never had a chance to learn about the importance of the other’s work, to realize there are a whole bunch of really good people here, and to know that deep down everyone is really interested in the same thing.”
We hope you’ll join us at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, where activism gets inspired, to see The Super Salmon and a whole host of other engaging and thought-provoking films.