Why Taking A River Trip—Even A Virtual One—Can Become An Act Of Conservation

In conservation, there exists a certain tenet: if people experience a place, they will come to love it and thus desire to care for it, and, when needed, fight for its protection. The great conservationist philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote in a 1949 essay that “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.” He believed that immersive experiences with the natural world were key to shaping a stewardship ethic toward the land, its wildlife, and its waters. And when it comes to waters, in this era of climate change, the necessity to steward and protect our rivers couldn’t be more front and center.

The thing is, not all of us are skilled enough or have the financial resources to take a trip down, say, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, whose waters are diminishing as the Southwest swelters through its most intense drought in 1200 years. Or the wild Hells Canyon on the Snake River, whose four dams, under campaign for removal, keep up to 80% of salmon and steelhead from making it to the sea where they sustain endangered orca populations. Or the Stikine River in Alaska, one of the last large intact ecosystems in the country and under threat from a cross-border mining boom at its headwaters in Canada.

That’s why the outdoor brand Yeti just released the latest book in its Yeti Presents Hardcover Book series: Whitewater. A collection of beautiful essays and photos from river-obsessed writers and photographers, it’s a virtual trip down iconic and obscure rivers all over the U.S. Perhaps in experiencing such waters through words and imagery, more of us may be inspired to steward their flows that are the lifeblood of so much of this country: they quench our people, water our fields, power our cities, and sustain the wild ecosystems that keep our planet healthy.

Although, says Kevin Fedarko, author of the acclaimed book The Emerald Mile and editor of Whitewater, the original intent of the book was a little simpler. “It was intended as a celebration,” he said, “a part of nature that we had all come to through various paths and arrived at more or less the same point in our relationship with moving water—a thing whose beauty and dynamism is so compelling that once you have allowed yourself to be taken up by it and carried downstream, it’s a thing to which you need to keep returning again and again in your life. It defines not just a particular point of geography but a state of mind.” Or, as he wrote in his foreword to the book, it’s a tribute to those “besotted with whitewater—drawn to its beauty, held by its joy, unwilling to break from its magic.”

But others writers in Whitewater bring alive the conservation ethic in their writing, like Diné sisters Nikki and Colleen Cooley recalling the 2015 Gold King Mine failure that yellowed the Animas River with toxic mine tailings. And it’s no accident that Yeti chose to donate a portion of proceeds from sales of the book to American Rivers (AR), a national organization dedicated to a future of clean water and healthy rivers—an organization that enacts that same conservation tenet that experiencing a place leads to a desire to steward it.

In partnership with the venerated raft guide company OARS, that was founded on “a legacy of river conservation and stewardship based on the inspiring idea that spreading the love of wild rivers is the surest path to their protection, now and for the enjoyment of future generations,” AR runs two trips each year to bring decision-makers directly into the enchanting world of flowing water. One runs down the Yampa River in Colorado, the largest free-flowing river in the Colorado Basin that only barely escaped being dammed in the 1950s; and the other, co-hosted with the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, runs down different sections of the Colorado River each year, that great artery that sustains so many towns, cities, farms, and natural systems across a huge portion of the West.

“In the Colorado River Basin, we’re seeing the overuse of water and climate-driven aridification create a water supply crisis in the Southwest U.S.,” says Michael Fiebig, Director of AR’s Southwest River Protection Program. “It’s hard to open a newspaper or app without being inundated with this bad news. And it’s going to get worse, with predictions that we can expect 20-30% less water than we have now by 2050. All is not lost though. While we need to get more creative and collaborative than ever with our water management in the Southwest – the time is now – we also still have hundreds of intact, ecologically and culturally important rivers in the region. Getting people to know, love, and ultimately protect our last, best sections of river is the antidote to despair, and will play a critical role in how we envision the future of the West.”

So perhaps it’s not too far-fetched that picking up a book of images and words celebrating rivers might convince a few—or maybe many—to care for our waters. As the Cooleys wrote: We all live downstream. We are all born in water… And we all need water to survive. Water is life.

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