Monday, January 13, 2014

A Lifetime Lesson - Sense of Place is Either/Or

I can’t remember why, when in my thirties I suddenly stopped fly- or even spin-fishing, but it probably had to do with worsening of a condition that first manifested itself in grade school called “essential tremor.”

It was the end of a long line of rivers I frequented wherever I lived with names such as Provo, Spokane and Ship Creek but it all began on the Henry’s Fork.

Well into retirement now, following a four-decade career in community marketing, I sometimes wonder about the origins of my sense-of-place sensibilities in that career and the realization reached late in my career that “you can’t have it both ways” when it comes to that attribute.

I suspect my sensibilities trace to when I first began to fly-fish the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River (aka North Fork or Upper Snake) as a young boy.  It ran less than a mile from our ancestral horse and cattle ranch.

The prized trout species on the Henry’s Fork, acclaimed as one of the best in the world for fly-fishing, is not the invasive Rainbow but the native Yellowstone Cutthroat.

It is one of at least fourteen subspecies of cutthroat, each native to a separate geographic area of the Rocky Mountain West.  While it was the first type of trout encountered by Spanish explorers in 1541 near Santa Fe, New Mexico, cutthroats evolved millions of years ago in the Snake River basins such as the iconic Henry’s Fork.

They had become rare in their native Henry’s Fork by the time I caught my first Yellowstone Cutthroat in 1954 or so.  They had fallen victim to commercial fisheries about the time my great-grandparents homesteaded in that nook of Idaho.

That’s also about the same time invasive, non-native species of trout such as the Rainbow were introduced and began to overrun the native Yellowstone Cutthroat.

It wasn’t until 1958 that efforts began in earnest to protect and foster Yellowstone Cutthroats as well as repair their native ecosystem.  By the time I was heading to Alaska in 1978 for the decade prior to coming to Durham, North Carolina, Idaho Fish & Wildlife forsook non-native trout planting.

After nearly seventy years of stocking lakes and rivers with the use of fish trains, fish trucks, fish helicopters etc., Idaho adopted a wild or native trout management policy eventually including a plan now for Yellowstone Cutthroat.

Still, until recently, the state tried to have it both ways, stocking 100,000 Yellow Cutthroat annually in the 1980s and 1990s while also flooding its population over that period with 44 million rainbows, polluting not only the gene pool but the ecosystem.

Yellowstone Cutthroat is the only native species on the Henry’s Fork, but reestablishing this incredible trout has also relied on organizations such as the Henry’s Fork Foundation, founded in 1984 and the forging of partnerships with ranchers, farmers, towns and hydroelectric projects along the river.

Much of the credit for the realization of the importance of geographically-specific native trout species is due to the work of Dr. Robert Behnke, who in his 80s, passed away a few months ago a few years after authoring the spectacularly illustrated and encyclopedic, Trout And Salmon of North America.

In tribute, this winter’s issue of Trout Magazine, a publication for members of the conservation group Trout Unlimited, features mini-essays by scientists Behnke influenced entitled Why Natives?

While learning about the corrosive influence of non-native or invasive species of trout may have planted a seed in me as a six year old, during the first three decades of my career in community marketing for visitor-centric economic and cultural development I labored under the hubristic fallacy that somehow a community can juggle both.

Only in the fourth and final decade of my career did I come to grips with the truth that no matter how hard a destination marketer tries to balance the real and fake attributes of place while guiding venturers who seek the former, in the end the two cannot coexist.

Just as with trout, the invasive, non-native or fake attributes are corrosive and by their nature, even as hybrids, erode sense of place.  This epiphany is also at the root of my strong belief now that no amount of accommodation for sign blight such as roadside billboards can be tolerated when it comes to preserving sense of place.

While this epiphany came to me in the year 2000, I heard it prophesized so eloquently a few years later by Dr. Scott Russell Sanders at a groundbreaking conference held in the Southern Rockies but attended by only a handful of professionals responsible for preserving, promoting and protecting sense of place.

For some communities, it is too late.  But they can become reservations for that shrinking layer of tourism that is more like shopping, where people seek out the familiar in settings that are either simulations or the backdrop for zip lining.

In time, as the 1973 movie Westworld foretold, maybe one day there will be regions of what some call fake places.  Ironically, it was the last release by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) before transforming as a centerpiece in simulated places such as Las Vegas where the “real” no longer exists except in film.

Others such as Durham, where I have now lived nearly forty percent of my life, are still riding the fence.

Belying well deserved credit for preserving sense of place, such as that published last week by the uber-hip Virgin Atlantic airline from Jason Frye on its Our Places blog post, is that Durham does not have a comprehensive over-arching strategy when it comes to preserving and fostering sense of place.

Just because unique sense of place is in Durham’s DNA, something fully embraced by the community marketing organization responsible for leveraging visitor-centric economic and cultural development, doesn’t mean corrosive influences aren’t at work.

Often these influences are enabled by those who think they can ride the fence by also fostering things that make the community the same as hundreds and thousands of other places.

It took me an entire career to realize it can’t be done.

Just as Idaho came to value its wild and native trout as unique to specific geographic locations such as my native Henry’s Fork, Durham is in a struggle for its soul, drawn as often to the “new and shiny” as it is to sense of place, often planting one next to the other as if to tempt fate.

Instructors such as Dr. Dana Clark at Appalachian State University in the northwestern mountains of my state, are valiantly attempting to embed respect for sense of place in a new generation of community marketing executives, often using Durham’s as a role model.

But judging by how long it took me to come to the realizations expressed in this essay, it may not be possible.

This may be why we experience the awe of a genuine and authentic place in our youth but come to appreciate what it means and what it  takes to sustain only with age.

I so hope I am wrong.

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