Far Flung, But Never Far Afield

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY OSCAR NUNEZ OLIVAS - Aerial view of the San Juan River, natural border between Costa Rica (R) and Nic
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY OSCAR NUNEZ OLIVAS - Aerial view of the San Juan River, natural border between Costa Rica (R) and Nicaragua (L), taken on October 24, 2010. Costa Rica's government denounced on Monday the presence of Niocaraguan troops in Costa Rican territory and requested the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Jose Miguel Insulza, to convene the Permanent Council of the organism. AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/GettyImages)

When you run an organization that fixes rivers, you can find your office in some pretty exotic locations. In the last year, I've been on water in Patagonia, checked out watershed dynamics in Costa Rica, and had my gear dropped by mules in the Montana wilderness to run an untamed section of river. Sometimes arduous, often epic, but always useful, there is a method to the madness.

Reality checks

After presenting to the International Association for Impact Assessment in Vina del Mar on how to quantify conservation actions, I headed south to check out the status of freshwater resources in Patagonia. What I saw, surprisingly and immediately, was that much of the landscape had been hammered by grazing and replanted non-native trees. The picture in my mind's eye was something very different -- I had anticipated an environmental Shangri-La, but instead I got endless miles of fence row and Mercedes Unimogs stacked full of firewood used to heat everything from schools to hospitals. I found rivers full of non-native species, ranging from planted German Brown Trout to Atlantic Salmon escaped from fish farms off the coast.

When in Costa Rica to discuss new conservation financing mechanisms (and yes, surf before breakfast) with thought leaders and practitioners, I had a similar reality check. Most of us think of Costa Rica as a jungle paradise. But on the Pacific coast, it is largely a dry forest ecosystem and where I went, the subsistence farming had slowly but surely simplified the forest-mangrove-ecosystem of the Nandamojo River ("river of plenty") in Guanacoste to the point where real restoration action is needed. Conservation, in both instances, has to make financial sense to the locals before it can happen. The locals are working on it at Our Watershed, but regulations are often not promulgated or unenforced, and very little public funding is available for restoration.

Common ground
I don't go to new places to purposely get bummed out. The fact is, I'm already pretty unsatisfied about the status of most all freshwater ecosystems. Rather, I go into these environments with like-minded -- and sometimes different-minded -- people to expose them firsthand to what's happening on the ground. Getting out there is far superior to simply explaining things verbally. All you have to do is crank the boat around and be quiet; the place will largely explain itself. The other big thing derives from sharing a common experience in an uncommon environment. It builds trust. It breaks down barriers. And these factors allow for honest exchanges, and disagreements to be explored vigorously in order to out the truth and change minds in a way that cannot happen in places with walls. Nothing can unite two traditional opponents quite like a long horse trip through bear country after dark, or getting thrown from a raft in whitewater. Rivalries that matter in civilized settings lose their importance in the field. And that's a good thing, especially when the new perspective is often what remains.

Time and again, I've seen willful ignorance give way to honest and heated debate after a few days together in a common journey through uncommon territory. Once you know somebody better, you can speak your mind and understand theirs. I applaud those who make these kinds of exchanges happen, work hard to precipitate them myself, but still wish there were opportunities for more.

Paths forward
Across the board, the bulk of the environmental problems we face stem from humans simplifying ecosystems while building complex economic relationships. Fixing our rivers requires that we reintroduce complexity and function through restoration -- effectively reshaping the relationship between the economy and the environment. That difficult task only begins with a grounded understanding of the resource and its local realities, and only continues through honest debate and problem-solving. And a lot of time, that can only happen in the strangest places.

I'm in. And if you get the chance, you should be too.

Follow Joe S. Whitworth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fresh2otrust
More information at: www.thefreshwatertrust.org