Jim Welter lives in Brookings, Oregon, where he has spent his life as a fisherman. I first met Jim when he was in his eighties and blind in one eye — a wiry, thin, smallish man. He came to an open public meeting I ran for fishermen and fishing guides, which was part of a study I was doing for the state of Oregon about the relative effects of forest practices on salmon. I believed that as part of a democratic process in a democracy, we scientists should hear not only from other scientific experts but from the interested public as well — whomever wanted to speak, especially those who had spent their lives dealing with Oregon’s wonderful natural resources, and thought about them and loved them.
At this meeting, Jim made one of the most remarkable, insightful suggestions about salmon that I’d heard during the entire three-year study. But the meeting he attended hadn’t started off so well. To begin with, there was considerable distrust by the fishermen and fishing guides of some scientist from California, paid by the government, who arrived in Gold Beach and was probably going to tell them what to do about their salmon. Before the meeting, the small team of scientists I had organized to do the project ate lunch with a representative of the fishermen. One of my colleagues said to him, "There seems to be some considerably hostility toward the government of Oregon."
"Darn right,"he said, "When they came down here and told us they could manage salmon, we thought they meant that we could manage to have salmon."
When I opened the meeting, the audience of hardworking men sat stiffly upright in their chairs with their arms folded, looking hostile, until one of them said, "Professor Botkin, do you believe that the salmon are declining?"
I replied honestly "I’ve just started this project and don’t know much of anything about salmon and don’t have any preconceived ideas. I’m just here to find out what is known."
The audience immediately relaxed and became very helpful. By the end of the meeting, the leader of the fishing guides got up and said that the guides knew the rivers better than anybody, they spent 360 days a year on them, and they would be willing to make any measurements that would be helpful to our study."
That was a pleasant turn around. But most remarkable of all was Jim Welter. He got up to speak and said, "I don’t know much about science, but it just makes sense that if these salmon are born and reared in freshwater streams and spend about a year there, and then go to the ocean and return when they’re three or four, that the amount of water flowing in the stream where they were born ought to make a big difference in how many survive and return."
That made a lot of sense to me, and it was refreshing to hear something constructive, especially when I had only recently learned that the Bonneville Power Administration, which built and ran the big dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, had spent $2.5 billion on salmon research and restoration and, according to one of their top executives who spoke to me, those dollars hadn’t yielded a single sign of improvement in the salmon. How could a big agency spend that much money and have absolutely nothing to show for it? I wondered. I found out, but that’s the subject of another time, another story.
Jim Welter did more than provide us with a little verbal wisdom based on years of experience — in my career working on natural living resources, I had come across people who did provide that kind of insight, almost always interesting. But Jim took it several steps further. He went to the state of Oregon’s Department of Fish and Game and got the data for the counts of salmon crossing a dam on the Rogue and the Umpqua rivers — these were the only two rivers of the more than 20 rivers that flowed to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon south of the Columbia River, where the state actually counted salmon .
Discovering that the state didn’t know how many salmon it had on most of its rivers was pretty disconcerting to me, as I was hired to tell them what was happening to salmon and why, and this required basic information about changes in salmon numbers over time, which did not exist, I had only recently discovered, for most of the rivers.
Then Jim went to the U. S. Geological Survey and got the data for stream flow for each year on those rivers for the time that salmon had been counted. This was a remarkable step, especially because to my knowledge no agency of the state or federal government had done this comparison.
Even more remarkable was that Jim had gotten a friend who knew a little about science to help him graph the two kinds of data. He brought in a huge hand-drawn graph (this was in the days before PowerPoint, and anyway, Jim wouldn’t have used that). A nonscientist actually doing an analysis of data. Once again, no government agency had gone this far.
Sure enough, as Jim pointed out, if there was a high-water year, then four years later a lot of salmon swam upstream. If there was a low-water year, then four years later few salmon returned. Jim provided the first important insight into what might be a major factor influencing salmon abundance.
We were so impressed with Jim’s suggestion and his graph that we contracted with Ben Stout, a forester and statistician, to do a formal statistical analysis of these two data sets. And sure enough, it turned out that one could account for 80% of the variation in salmon abundance from water flow alone, and you could thereby forecast pretty well four years in advance whether or not there would be a good salmon year. Since the methods in use at the time set the catch sometimes a few months before the fishing season opened, and didn’t give the fishermen much chance to prepare, this seemed a remarkable advance.
We wrote this up as a scientific paper and proposed it to the state and to salmon fisheries scientists.
In the years since, once in a while I call Jim and ask how he’s doing. Sometimes he asks "Them government fellows ever listen to what you told them?" And I would have to admit that they hadn’t. Another time Jim said on the phone "If only we weren’t so greedy, everything would be all right."
Although Jim wasn’t trained as a scientist, he was a natural at it. Gathering data, looking at it, thinking about it, graphing it, and coming up with insights. That was just good science. And sad to say, we had seen little like it, certainly not from the large staff of the Bonneville Power Administration. But as I said, that’s another story. If you want to hear about why BPA and other scientists did not think to plot water flow against salmon returns, write me and I’ll set that story down.
Jim Welter represents one kind of person we desperately need to help with our environmental problems: a good observer invested in natural resources without any ideological bones to pick, open to new ideas, willing to look at primary data in a fresh way, to construct graphs, and not jump to conclusions.
When I think about acting locally to help nature, I think about Jim Welter, who had more foresight with his one eye that many government employees with two.
Copyright © Daniel B. Botkin 2007