The Fisher King

Guido Rahr is on a mission to save the earth--one salmon at a time.

by Chris Lydgate

It's a late October afternoon on the Oregon coast, and the sky looks like a wet towel. There's a bite in the air, but Guido Rahr doesn't seem to feel the chill or notice the drizzle that pockmarks the surface of the Nehalem River. He is stalking his prey.

Standing in the bow of an 18-foot driftboat, clad in waders and his trademark hat (a chocolate Stetson with an inch trimmed off the brim), he brandishes his spey rod, whipping it back and forth, and casts the line into the river. The water is black as licorice, flecked with a fine white foam where it bubbles over the rocks and swirls past the tangle of dogwood and knotweed, spinach green and beer-bottle brown, that crowds the bank. A freight train rumbles in the distance, nudging a blue heron off its perch and into a lazy helix, its outline smudged by fog.

This was supposed to be an educational trip, full of talk about ecosystems and habitat restoration. But the boat is quiet--and the mood watchful, even tense. The only sound is the lap of water against the hull and the triple whistle of the rod whipping through the air. Suddenly the line goes taut. Somehow, out in the middle of nowhere, without tracks, without bait, without so much as a glimpse, Rahr has cornered his quarry. He reels in the line and a gleam of mottled silver breaks the surface--a glistening 16-inch cutthroat trout. He pulls the fish into the boat, gently disengages the hook and cradles his catch in his hands, pointing out the bright orange slash that gives the fish its name. Then he strokes its soft belly and tosses it gasping and wriggling back into the river.

Widely regarded as one of the best fly-fishermen in the world, Rahr has cast his line everywhere from the headwaters of the Deschutes River to the steppes of Mongolia. He holds several world records. He's gone fishing with newsman Tom Brokaw, actor Michael Keaton, Intel founder Gordon Moore and novelist Thomas McGuane.

But Rahr is more than a sportsman--he's an evangelist. His mission is nothing less than to save the Pacific salmon from extinction. And to do that, he is challenging the conventional wisdom of the last six decades.



We're sitting in the snack car of the Amtrak Cascades train, bound for Seattle, and Rahr is gazing out the window at the green ribbon of the Columbia River, thinking about fish. With warm blue eyes, sandy hair and a toothy grin, he radiates a boyish energy despite his 45 years. He wears Keens clogs to work and totes a scuffed leather bag. He drives to the office in a 1990 VW microbus that sometimes demands a push-start before sputtering to life.

Behind the rough-hewn exterior, however, Rahr is sharp as a buck knife. He holds a master's degree from Yale in environmental studies and has published several articles in scientific journals. He is the president and CEO of the Wild Salmon Center and a prodigious rainmaker--over the last five years he has raised $22 million for his crusade to protect the fish.

Salmon, perhaps more than any other creature, defines the Pacific Rim. Its ancestors roamed the ancient seas when dinosaurs walked the earth. Today its range extends in a massive arc from the redwoods of California up to the icy streams of Alaska and across to the coasts of Korea. Because salmon is anadromous--that is, it lives in the ocean but returns to the river to spawn--it occupies a unique ecological niche, reinforcing and supporting scores of other wildlife, including bears, seals, eagles and whales.

"Salmon is a keystone species," says Rahr. "It holds everything else up."

Beyond its vital role in the aquatic ecosystem, Salmon is also central to the cultural identity of the Northwest. For millennia, native peoples from the Ainu of Japan to the Karuk of the Klamath River have depended on salmon for survival. No other creature can rival its totemic significance for the people and the landscape of the Pacific Rim. Oh yeah, it's an important economic force, too--salmon and steelhead sport fishing in Oregon generates roughly $700 million a year, according to a recent study by the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, and that doesn't include the state's commercial harvest.

The good news is that salmon is a powerful and resilient species, thriving in many rivers across the Pacific. Out of the small number of stocks that have been scientifically assessed, fully 77 percent are deemed healthy.

The bad news is that the future looks bleak. Global warming, population pressure, mining, logging, dams and irrigation all strangle the rivers that the salmon depend on. "We've hammered the forest, the land and the water through a thousand cuts," says Rahr. In the 19th century, the salmon run on the Columbia River was estimated at 10 million a year. Today, that number hovers around 200,000. Each year, Rahr continues, the range of the salmon retreats, like condensation on a windshield. Unless we can rebalance the equation, the Pacific salmon will follow its cousins in the Atlantic into what biologists call "population crash." (In 1975, biologists estimated the number of full-grown Atlantic salmon spawning in North American rivers at 917,000. Today, there are fewer than 120,000.)

Rahr takes a paper napkin and sketches out a graph of the salmon population. He draws a slanting sawtooth curve--a series of spikes and wedges that sink progressively lower with every passing year. Fish population levels fluctuate naturally, he explains. Some years they're up; some years they're down. But the overall pattern is clear: fewer and fewer salmon. As the wedges grow deeper, the salmon in the most distressed rivers tend to wink out--go extinct.

"Once they're down here, everyone goes, 'Oh, shit!'" he says, gesturing toward the point on the graph where the curve crosses the zero axis. "But by the time you get to that point, it's too late to do anything. You've got to get ahead of the curve. Because salmon react to things you did years ago."

"We're in this little window of time where we can still do something," he says, as the train rocks back and forth. "But I don't know if we can pull it off."



The Rahr family knows something about conservation, at least when it comes to names. Rahr's father and grandfather were also named Guido, as is his son. (It's pronounced "Geet-oh," by the way.) The eldest of five children, Rahr grew up in Lake Oswego and spent idyllic summers in a family cabin in Dant on the Deschutes river. When he was 11, his father took over the family malting business, and the family moved back to Shakopee, Minn. Rahr can still remember the way his heart sank when he first set eyes on his new home in the flat, dreary plains of the Midwest, so different from the mountains and rivers of Oregon. He didn't care about malt; what he cared about was snakes.

Ever since he can remember, Rahr was fascinated with the reptiles. "I always had a snake around my neck," he says. The Rahr household was constantly a-slither with bull snakes, boa constrictors, king snakes and pythons. By the time he was 12, he knew the Latin name of all the reptiles in North America, and most of the amphibians. He convinced his parents to send him to boarding school in Arizona so he could hunt for his great obsession, the mountain king snake. He kept several snakes--including a 13-foot reticulated python--in his dorm room as an English major at the University of Oregon in the early eighties. When he brought girls back to his room, he had to turn the radio on to drown out the hiss of the rattlers.

Rahr was introduced to fly-fishing thanks to a family spat. When he was 15 years old, he had the impertinence to take a spinning rod to the family cabin on the Deschutes. A spinning rod uses a lure, which fly-fishermen will tell you is about as sporting as using a machine gun to shoot deer. Lure in hand, Guido proceeded to catch several trout right under the nose of his aunts and uncles. They rained avuncular indignation down on his head and insisted that he learn how to fish with a fly.

Fly-fishing, as Rahr discovered, is basically an adventure into the preposterous. Fly-fishermen don't use bait or nets. The fly--a tiny speck of feathers and thread--is only visible for a few feet underwater. To hook a fish with a fly, you need to cast exactly where the fish are. Then you have to land them with a lightweight rod and a line that can't withstand an out-and-out tug-of-war. In the 19th century, most anglers thought fly-fishing for salmon was like weaving a rope of sand. Many will tell you the same thing today.

"It's almost impossible," says Rahr. "To succeed, you have to understand what's going on in the world of the fish."

Something about that underwater puzzle is hypnotic, even seductive. Rahr felt an instinct, a sort of hunger, awaken inside him. He became a fly-fishing fanatic. He fished further and further afield--British Columbia, Alaska, Mongolia. He set several world records for catching big fish on light lines. He taped a 12-part TV show titled On The Fly. After graduating from U of O in 1985, he worked at Channel 12 (KPTV) for several months as an outdoor reporter. Thanks to his mentor (and cousin), Spencer Beebe, he landed a job with the Nature Conservancy working in the Mexican cloudforest. He obtained a master's from Yale in environmental studies in 1994 and worked on salmon stocks for Oregon Trout, a nonprofit that fights for cleaner streams and stronger fish. Somewhere in there, he got a black belt in tae kwon do.

In 1998, Rahr decided to strike out on his own. He took the reins of an obscure nonprofit named the Wild Salmon Center, whose assets consisted of some tents and rafts, a logo and $25,000 in the bank. Working from an office in his living room, Rahr hammered out a new strategy to save the salmon--concentrate on preserving healthy rivers before they get sick.


Stepping into the Wild Salmon Center, located on the top floor of the Ecotrust Building in the Pearl District, is like stepping into an international airport. The brick walls are blanketed with maps of the Aleutian Islands, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Korean peninsula and the islands of Japan, and the conference room echoes with the syllables of English and Russian.

That's no accident. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of all wild Pacific salmon spawn in Kamchatka, a massive Russian peninsula the size of California but with a population of just 400,000. Largely undeveloped, Kamchatka is the focus of many of the WSC's efforts. "It's like buying up Microsoft at pennies a share," Rahr says.

At the heart of this approach is the recognition that not every river is going to teem with fish. The demands of our civilization are simply too great. We need dams to light our cities; mills to make our plywood; wheat for our bread and cows for our butter. Choked by dams, logging and agriculture, some rivers are basically a lost cause when it comes to salmon recovery.

Take, for example, Redfish Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth mountains. The sockeye salmon was once so plentiful there that early settlers named the lake for it. But that was before the dams. Today no fewer than 13 dams bind the 900 miles of river from the lake to the Pacific ocean--and the only sockeye left are stocked there by the government.

"I'm not saying we should abandon the lake," Rahr says. "I'm just saying we should focus our resources. Right now, we're pouring money into places with the lowest long-term chances for salmon survival. We need a better balance."

The traditional solution is to build a hatchery. But Rahr is convinced that hatcheries actually make matters worse. Hatchery fish aren't as smart or as tough as their wild cousins, he says, but their sheer numbers are so overwhelming that they tend to drive wild fish out of the rivers they are supposed to be saving. What's more, they interbreed with wild fish, diluting their genetic diversity.

Furthermore, Rahr argues, rules and regulations governing recovery efforts are backwards, since they revolve around the concept of endangered species. When the EPA declares a particular run endangered, the government is required to mitigate or recover. But by the time these efforts are under way, it is difficult--and expensive--to reverse the trend. Salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River basin cost $600 million a year, and many biologists say that has barely slowed the fish's decline. "Once you've destroyed a salmon river, you can spend millions of dollars without any real success," he says.

Rather than work on the "eleventh hour" cases, Rahr seeks to protect at least one river in each of the 66 distinct "salmon ecoregions" across the North Pacific [[see map]]. If these strongholds are maintained, the theory goes, the fish can survive the intense environmental pressure of the next 50 years, when the earth's population is projected to swell to 9 billion people.

With a staff of 37 and a budget of $6 million, WSC is currently working to protect rivers across the Pacific. With other partners, it bought up land along the Hoh River on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, safeguarding a watershed of 299 square miles. It pushed for a salmon refuge in Kamchatka's Kol River, protecting 850 square miles of pristine waterway. Other projects include the John Day, the Tillamook and several rivers on Sakhalin Island. Rahr even persuaded the United Nations to get involved in salmon conservation.

"He's built the Wild Salmon Center into a formidable organization," says biologist Jim Lichatowich, author of Salmon Without Rivers. "If they accomplish everything they've set out to do--and I've no reason to doubt that they will--they'll make a major contribution to the salmon and steelhead."


Dapper in a red silk tie, a herringbone jacket and leather shoes polished to a warm glow, Rarh stands before a small audience of millionaires. The occasion is a cocktail party at the Seattle home of Sally and Bill Neukom, the former top lawyer for Microsoft, and several luminaries are in attendance, among them Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard and actor Tom Skerritt.

Rahr is fishing again tonight--but this time it's for money.

"Our world is changing," he begins, as his listeners nibble at canapés. The truth is that he would rather be casting his fly on the Nehalem River, but fishing and fundraising are not entirely dissimilar. His audience tonight, like the salmon, is smart and wary. They're too sophisticated to snap at the first line dangled before them. Most will probably never contribute. But if he casts his rod in just the right place at just the right moment, he might make that crucial connection.

Rahr's most successful fundraising technique is, in fact, to take prospective donors on fishing trips--and then to leave them alone. "If someone has a great experience on the river, the chance they'll help you save it is dramatically increased," he says. "We've done well with people who love rivers--even those who wouldn't call themselves environmentalists."

The thrill of catching a wild fish in a wild river is a vital part of recruiting donors because when you get right down to it, salmon are not particularly photogenic. They aren't cute like panda bears or baby seals. You can't really bond with them through the pages of a magazine. When you look at a salmon, you don't want to cuddle it; you want to eat it. Salmon arouse an older, more primitive instinct.

Rahr believes that wild fish are connected to a part of human nature that is in danger of sinking beneath the foam of our lattes and the static of our cell phones. It is the ability to read the flow of a river, to sense the unseen, to lure and land an elusive prey undistracted by the background chatter of modern life. If we lose that, we lose part of what it means to be human. What drives him is not the hope that we can save the salmon. It's the hope that the salmon can save us.