Just about everyone who has come upon the Rio Gallisteo, which runs east to west into the Basin of the Rio Grande, a little more than 30 minutes drive from my house in New Mexico, has looked at it with disappointment.
A bare, broad, usually dry creek bordered by little vegetation beyond a few sketch lines of cottonwoods, it was denounced by the great ecological writer Aldo Leopold as a one-time stream that had been gullied to death, its banks trampled down and eaten to nudity by 19th century herds of horses, cattle and sheep.
Leopold passed this judgment more than 100 years ago, but most recent visitors would agree, Rio Gallisteo has declined from a living river to a wrinkled, subdivided, packed-sand drainpipe that sends infrequent rains straight to the Big River running perpendicular to its west, and spends most of its days looking like a long, large, dry gulch.
But we also suffer from the same problem as Aldo Leopold: we’ve arrived too late. He missed Rio Gallisteo’s glory days by 80 years…we’re more than twice as removed. The death of the Gallisteo came in the 1820s and 30s when trappers, for reasons both economic and political, effectively eradicated the local population of beavers, and erased with the aquatic rodents, what had once been a spare sort of wetland oasis.
That pattern, kill the beavers, let their dams fall into disrepair, and watch a river of ponds and pools and loops that support a thriving eco-system of fish and birds, plants, shrubs and trees all disappear together, and become something less – that pattern — has been repeated across America ever since Europeans first arrived.
Now, there are more and more exceptions to that rule; more and more rivers and streams that are being revived, and turned into places more beautiful and more useful by the restoration of the beaver to its keystone role in riverine ecology.
There’s no chance we can bring back the famous explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who mapped the American West by following the great rivers, the Missouri from its mouth at St Louis along the Mississippi to its headwaters in the northern Rockies, and the Columbia from its mountain sources to the Pacific Ocean.
But in both those great drainage basins, smaller rivers, creeks and streams are being restored to conditions closer to those Lewis and Clark might have seen on their mission from President Thomas Jefferson, from 1804 to 1806. How? Well, the recipes all start with beaver.
Ben Goldfarb is an independent environmental journalist, editor, and fiction writer. He is the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, available from Chelsea Green Publishing in June 2018. He often covers marine science and wildlife conservation, but he’ll tackle any story with an environmental bent (and some without).
His work has been featured in Science, Mother Jones, The Guardian, High Country News, VICE, Audubon Magazine, Modern Farmer, Orion, World Wildlife Magazine, Scientific American, Yale Environment 360, and many other publications. He holds a master of environmental management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and is a 2018 North American Congress for Conservation Biology journalist fellow.