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Klamath Dam Tour with the Yurok Tribe & Borneo Project

Last week, EPIC staff had the privilege of hosting a tour of the Klamath River, as well as the Iron Gate Dam and Reservoir (which are currently undergoing removal), with members of the Ancestral Guard, the Borneo Project, and the Borneo-based organization SAVE Rivers.

A regional map of Southeast Asia with the island of Borneo highlighted.
Map by EHitchcock via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, is located in Southeast Asia and shared by the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam. With incredible biodiversity and rich forests, the island is home to orangutans, sun bears, and many other endangered species, as well as thousands of Indigenous people who have hunted, gathered, and farmed there for generations.

Map via SciDev.Net (CC).

Sarawak Energy Berhad, a government-owned company in the Malaysian Province of Sarawak on Borneo’s northwest coast, has proposed building a series of cascading dams on the Baram River — akin to those being removed on the Klamath River. The company claims that the dams are “sustainable” and would not harm the environment, but other dams in Sarawak and around the world, including on the Klamath, clearly demonstrate that this is not the case. In truth, these dams would harm ecosystems, economies, and Indigenous communities and cultures.

Celine Lim, Managing Director of SAVE Rivers, a Sarawak-based Civil Society Organisation (CSO) that advocates for Indigenous People and environmental rights, traveled from Borneo to California in order to see the Klamath dam removal project in action and learn about ways to advocate against similar dam construction on the Baram River.

Our trip began on the Klamath River Overlook, where we soaked in the magnificent forested landscape and the sparkling waters of the Klamath River meeting the Pacific Ocean under a clear blue sky.

Photo by Abigail Lowell.

Next, members of the Ancestral Guard generously brought two traditional Yurok redwood dugout canoes, hosted our delegation paddling near the mouth of the Klamath River, and shared information about the canoes’ handcrafting process and cultural significance. 

Photo by Abigail Lowell.

These 18-foot wooden canoes are hand-carved from single, solid redwood logs over the course of 2-3 years. They are living beings, treated (and greeted) just like any other member of the family, with vital organs including a heart, lungs, and kidneys carved in the wood. The canoes are devotedly maintained, including sanding, painting, safe storage, and quality time together on the river. The canoes show care in return, never sinking even when flipped or filled with water. We paddled ceremonial canoes, which are differentiated from those used for hunting or fishing. This was the first time that Yurok canoes had been on the Klamath River since the dams started coming out, as high flows from winter snowmelt (combined with dam reservoir drawdowns this year) earlier in the year are hazardous to navigate, and also often carry large logs downstream that can tear fishing nets.

For lunch, members of the Ancestral Guard generously shared the delicious, traditional Yurok food staples of salmon on a stick, deer stew, and tanoak acorn water.

Photos by Amber Jamieson & Abigail Lowell.

Later that afternoon, we drove northeast from Klamath, California to Ashland, Oregon along the Smith River. The clear, emerald water of the Smith — the only major undammed, free-flowing river in California — was sharply juxtaposed by the innumerable roadside stumps and frequent logging decks along Highway 199. 

Photos by Abigail Lowell & Amber Jamieson.

EPIC understands that some roadside hazard tree removal, especially upslope from roadways, is necessary to ensure safe travel through forested areas. However, the extent of roadside logging along the Smith River, especially on riverbanks downhill from the road, reveals profit (not public safety) as the true motivation of the timber industry, Caltrans, and other associated government agencies — all at the expense of taxpayers, water quality, fish, wildlife, wild places, river communities, and the climate. Some of the largest fallen trees were more than 100 years old and more than 5 feet in diameter, and are now sitting in log piles directly adjacent to the highway, alongside heavy equipment staged and ready to continue such devastation. Click here to read more about logging near the Smith River from EPIC's Conservation Director Kimberly Baker.

We spent the night in Ashland, Oregon (approximately 80 miles southwest of the Klamath River headwaters), and then drove about 25 miles south to Hornbrook, California, where the Iron Gate Dam was built on the Klamath River in the early 1960s.

Iron Gate Dam was the last, most downstream dam of the four hydropower dams built on the Klamath River between 1911 and 1962, and Tribal-led advocacy for dam removal began in earnest in the early 2000s after a catastrophic fish kill in 2002. Click here to read more about the timeline of Klamath dam removal and restoration.

Photos by Abigail Lowell & Amber Jamieson.

We gathered on an observation deck overlooking the soon-to-be removed Iron Gate Dam and learned about the reservoir drawdown and dam removal processes from the Klamath River Renewal Corporation’s CEO Mark Bransom. Klamath River activists shared their experiences of how the dams have affected downriver communities, including complete closures of salmon fisheries for commercial, recreational, and even ceremonial purposes off the coast of California, which resulted in a recent suicide epidemic among Yurok fishermen who could no longer provide for their families. Ironically, the day after our tour, federal officials voted for the second year in a row to close coastal commercial and recreational fishing due to low salmon numbers statewide.

Photo by Abigail Lowell.

From Iron Gate Dam, we traveled upriver along the drained Iron Gate Reservoir to an overlook, where we shared a picnic lunch and inspirational stories about the river, salmon, and Indigenous communities that depend on healthy salmon runs for subsistence, ceremony, and their way of life. We also discussed political and social strategies necessary to prevent or restore the impacts that dams create in California, Borneo, and worldwide. Our group ended the gathering with traditional Yurok drumming and singing along the mighty Klamath River as it begins to find its way through decades of sediment, feeling inspired to continue our work to protect and restore the Klamath River, its tributaries, and sister rivers for generations to come.


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