The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History

By Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 22
Environment at Risk

Below Wallace, the valley of the Coeur d'Alene R[iver] is like something out of Dante's "Inferno". In the days before measures were taken against stream pollution, the R[iver] overflowed every spring, carrying mine wastes into the bottoms & destroying all vegetation.--The American Guide ( 1949)

In the Pacific Northwest, as in few other parts of the United States, regional identity is almost wholly linked to natural setting. The Pacific Northwest without its mountains, its rugged coastline, its Puget Sound fogs, its vast interior of sagebrush, rimrock, and big sky is as unthinkable as New England without a Puritan heritage, the South without the Lost Cause, the Midwest without its agricultural cornucopia, or California without its gold rush mentality.

In the Pacific Northwest, however, nature long had to perform double duty. While on one hand she was revered as a source of aesthetic pleasure and outdoor recreation, on the other she was exploited and abused to provide profits and jobs. Until the twentieth century there was little tension between these two views of the environment. Nature had so lavished her favors on the region that few could conceive of her limits--or wanted to. Wilderness was something to be subdued, and water had a limitless capacity to absorb the effluents of industry. Even in the latter part of the twentieth century, the pioneer's belief in nature's abundance refused to die, despite considerable evidence of nature's limits.

To early settlers of the region, nature assumed heroic proportions. People

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