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The Two Rivers of Lewis & Clark
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery west to "find the shortest and most convenient route of communication between the U.S. and the Pacific Ocean." For the next three years, Lewis and Clark traveled 8,000 miles and named two-thirds of the American continent, mapping prairies, forests and mighty rivers, writing the first scientific description of 178 trees and plants and 122 animals, and learning from the American Indians who helped them along the way.
Because of Lewis and Clark, we know what America looked like 200 years ago, and we can measure the wildlands and wildlife that have been lost, and what’s left. Much endures. But the wildlands and wildlife that have survived need our help. Work with us at the Sierra Club to help protect and restore Wild America—the lands and rivers explored by Lewis and Clark.
"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River
[to] the Pacific Ocean."
The primary purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to find an all-water route across the continent. Key to its success was navigating the Missouri and Columbia rivers. For Lewis and Clark, these rivers were unpredictable and treacherous. The Columbia churned with falls and rapids. The Missouri eddied and swirled, constantly shifted its channel, and built and destroyed and rebuilt sandbars and islands.
"I sometimes wonder that some of our canoes and pirogues are not swallowed up by means of these immense masses of earth which are eternally precipating themselves into the river... We have had many hair breadth escapes," Lewis wrote Shortly after the Corps of Discovery reached the Columbia River, at the falls called the Dalles, Clark recoiled at "the horrid appearance of this agitated gut Swelling water, boiling and whorling in every direction."
Nearly 200 years later, most of the once mighty Missouri has been converted to a shipping channel or has been submerged beneath reservoirs. Edged by 2,000 miles of levees, the river is 127 miles shorter and a third as wide as it was in 1804. Channelizing and damming the river has robbed it of its ability to dissipate flood waters, deposit silt and nourish the soil, and support fish and wildlife. And the natural flow of the rivers in the Columbia Basin has been flattened and staunched by 29 federal dams and hundreds of other dams and reservoirs.
The Columbia River Gorge is one of the most distinctive stretches of the Lewis and Clark trail. Lewis and Clark would recognize many scenic places within the Gorge, but there are still areas threatened by sprawling development, logging and mining. Most of the salmon and steelhead stocks that inhabited the Columbia Basin 200 years ago are either extinct or listed under the Endangered Species Act, including chinook, coho, sockeye, steelhead trout, bull trout and other native trout. Allowing salmon to go extinct will violate moral and legal obligations to important federal treaties with American Indian tribes in the Columbia Basin.
The Columbia watershed, once home to more than 16 million wild salmon each year, is now a deadly gauntlet of concrete dams, hydroelectric turbines and slackwater reservoirs that kill young fish on their way to the ocean, and adults returning to freshwater spawning streams. Most devastating to salmon are the four federal dams on the Lower Snake River, located between Lewiston, Idaho, and the confluence with the Columbia at Pasco, Washington.
The federal government has squandered over $3 billion on failed technological fixes that were supposed to compensate for damage done by the dams, including moving young salmon downstream in barges. Yet salmon populations continue to shrink. The only hope for their recovery is to restore 140 miles of free-flowing river by removing the earthen portions of these dams.
The mountains "with steep rugged sides" were
"covered with a very thick growth of pine, cedar, cottonwood, and oak. . . This
country has a handsome appearance."
When Lewis and Clark reached the Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, instead of the familiar broadleaf woods of the East they found coniferous forests of pine, spruce, Douglas fir and ancient cedar. The flora were alien as well. More than two-thirds of the plants named by Lewis and Clark were discovered west of the Continental Divide. These forests offered obstacles and opportunities.
In their journals, Lewis and Clark complained of thick timber and downed wood that made the Indian trails through the Rockies nearly impassible. Yet the ponderosa pine groves also provided the expedition with wood for the canoes needed to navigate the westward tributaries of the Columbia. After a century of relentless logging, those ancient ponderosa pine groves are among the most imperiled forest ecosystems in America.
A lot has changed in 200 years. Nationwide, 52 percent of National Forest land — put aside as part of our public trust — has been logged, mined or drilled. Only 18 percent of America’s publicly owned forests are permanently protected as wilderness; the remaining 30 percent that is still wild is vulnerable to development and destruction. Meanwhile, a newthreat to wildlands has emerged in the past few decades—dirt bikes, snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles that tear up the terrain and penetrate deep into wild country.
Because, as Wendell Berry observed, "The fate of creatures is inextricably linked to the fate of places," the loss of these wildlands has had devastating effects on wildlife. Witness the fate of the grizzly bear and its habitat. More than 100,000 grizzlies roamed the West two centuries ago. Now, outside of Alaska, there are fewer than 1,000 grizzlies left in the United States, isolated in the Greater Yellowstone area and four other pockets in Montana, Idaho and Washington. Sprawling development, oil and gas drilling, logging and roadbuilding, and off-road vehicles are shrinking the bears’ habitat.
Solitary and independent, grizzlies require large expanses of wild country. To protect the bears and their habitat, the government listed them as a threatened species in 1975— a move credited with keeping the remaining populations alive. But now the government is taking steps to remove the bears and their habitat from federal protection, a move that could doom the few grizzlies left in the Lower 48.
"I ascended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, for
whence I had the most delighfull view of the country, the whole of which except the valley
formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of
the spectator immense herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common
and boundless pasture."
When Lewis and Clark crossed the Great Plains, it was one of the world’s largest grasslands, rivaling the plains of South Africa and Africa’s Serengeti. The prairies once spread from Indiana to the Rocky Mountains, from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and occupied more land than any other ecosystem in North America. Outbound, it took Lewis and Clark more than a year to cross the prairie, what Wallace Stegner called our "grand ocean of wind-troubled grass and grain."
Today, that ocean is gone. More than 90 percent of our native prairies have been lost, most to cultivation. Scattered over 12 states are just 20 patches of federally owned prairie. Even within the National Grasslands, our prairies have been breached by mining, roadbuilding, and oil and gas drilling.
Only 550,000 undeveloped acres remain, yet none of the National Grasslands is protected as wilderness. As many as 70 million bison (more commonly known as buffalo), 40 million pronghorn antelope and 5 billion prairie dogs lived on the Great Plains at the time of Lewis and Clark. Historian Paul Russell Cutright believes it is "impossible for anyone alive today to comprehend the abundance of game that once populated the plains of the West."
Lewis and Clark recorded hundreds of grassland animals previously unknown to science, including the grizzly bear, black-footed ferret, bighorn sheep, coyote, prairie chicken and black-billed magpie. Settlers who followed the explorers, exterminated grizzlies and bighorn sheep from the plains, leaving only isolated populations in the mountains. Wholesale slaughter almost eliminated the pronghorn and the buffalo.
By 1883, just 15 years after an immense herd of buffalo held up a westbound train for eight hours, there were only 350 wild buffalo left. The creation of Yellowstone National Park saved the buffalo. It’s where the remaining animals took refuge and made a comeback. Today, there are an estimated 200,000 buffalo, about 20,000 of them still wild. Prairie-dog towns covered as much as 20 percent of the prairie when Lewis and Clark crossed it.
Today, 98 percent of the prairie-dog towns have been eliminated and the prairie dog — which acts as a living plow, churning up the loam, keeping the soil loose and arable—is still being poisoned and shot, dismissed as a "varmint" as it has been for decades. Prarie dogs are the key to survival for species such as raptors, badgers, swift fox and black-footed ferrets.
For more information about the Sierra Club's Lewis and Clark campaign or to find out how you can help, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.