Tuesday, October 6, 2015


There’s a fire-breathing dragon in our mountains.  Should you request a photograph, he is invisible, but breathes his torch upon our coldwater flowages, ever more intensely as years progress.

Pine Creek, PA suffers from early autumn low water.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
    You’re skeptical?  Scientific academies the world over confirm his existence; and should you, being biologically inquisitive, wish to know where such a creature was birthed from, I would inform you that those very same scientists are in concurrence that you and I are the culprits at large. 

    A brute of such stature and appetite, you reason, must have some significant impact on his environment.  This is true.  However, I will counteroffer that he is a habitat generalist, omnipresent.  His impact is slow, yet steady—relatively undetectable to the untrained eye.

    Still, this intangible monstrosity of Sagan speciation affects quantifiable damage.  Our very own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken note (as of last summer) that his very existence on planet Earth results in rising water temperatures and altered streamflow so significant that 62 percent of coldwater fisheries habitat is projected to be compromised without intervention by the year 2100. 

    In layman’s terms, our dragon has the life ambition of forcing our trout and salmon from Appalachia, the continental lowlands and hills, and all but the highest elevation streams of the Rocky Mountain West.  Any individual concerned with ecological diversity, recreational fishing, or economics should consider such an antagonist a cold-blooded murderer.

    Still, he can neither be touched nor seen, and thus we have a decision to make.  Either we intervene, or we refrain, on faith that the dragon is merely a figment of our imagination.
Greg Craven, author of What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, an innovative, rational response to the climate change debate, offers a model that fits our dilemma quite nicely.  In reality, there are four possible actions and outcomes to this question.

    First, our dragon does, in fact, exist, but we decide not to intervene.  As a consequence, 62 percent becomes a very real number, and our trout and salmon are ravaged by a destructive reptile.

    Second, our dragon exists, and we decide to oust him.  As a result, we invest greatly in destroying the invasive fire-breather and save the majority of coldwater fisheries from slow death.

    Third, the dragon is actually make-believe, and we decide not to pursue his execution.  In this case, all is well that ends well.

    Finally, our dragon is, after all, a figment of our imagination, and we do decide to act.  Unnecessary economic downturn is the result, as we invest in dragon-killing measures that are effectively a wild goose chase.

    Mere days following the release of the EPA’s dramatic statement, I was having lunch with a handful of coldwater fisheries conservation professionals, employed by Trout Unlimited, delivering the comprehensive State of theTrout report—a critical look at the risks posed against coldwater fisheries, and the proposed solutions to those problems.  Many of those problems are related to climate change.

    In that setting, the aforementioned model would have served useful, as an aged gentleman sitting in on the discussion dug his heels into the dirt. 

    “Why are we focusing on climate change when the real problem is the health of our coldwater fisheries?” he questioned.

    “Because their decline is tied to climate change,” it was countered.

    The conversation hit a wall.

    What failed to be recognized is that failure to act, based on the claim that climate change is not occurring, gambles with the viability of the ecosystems in question.

    Within our four real options, two require action and two don’t.  Of the two that don’t, the only positive outcome relies on the premise that our dragon doesn’t exist (an idea which is strongly and collectively opposed by the international scientific community), while the worst results in the loss of over half of our coldwater fisheries.  Of the two that do require action, the positive result is a country of relatively healthy salmonids, while the worst reality is an unnecessary investment.

    Thus, it is irresponsible to get hung up on the question of whether or not a scaled beast inhabits our hills.  The question that should be asked is whether or not we should act; and the steward’s answer is “yes.”

    And so we are called to make an assumption:  there is a fire-breathing dragon in our mountains.  For should at last his unhindered wreckage be permitted to culminate, skeptics will see and believe, and all will mourn the loss of our finned protagonists, begging to trade a blinding societal ego recognized for an irreplaceable ecosystem so ignorantly sacrificed.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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