Coming home

Posted by Renee Magyar on May 16, 2011

Gina Knudson reflects on returning home to Salmon, ID after the 2011 Western Week in Washington

Gina Knudson of Salmon Valley Stewardship

Utter the words "Washington, D.C." in the rural West these days and watch the eyes roll. The place has become synonymous with a tangle of troubles that we the people are certain we could fix with a little common sense and some elbow grease if just given the chance.

Sustainable Northwest, as they've done for more than 10 years now, gave a group of us that chance with the recent Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition Western Week in Washington. I had been a couple of times before and was impressed by RVCC's effectiveness in linking national policy with what rural communities are experiencing on the ground.

Merrill Beyeler, a Central Idaho rancher who has done more to improve salmon habitat in the interior West than some entire agencies, joined his first Western Week and saw the nation's capitol for the first time.

Trying to explain the emotion he felt, Merrill asked in his always-quiet voice, "Am I weird?" I relayed to Merrill something I'd heard a longtime Congressional staffer say the year before. She told us, "When I see the Capitol lit up at night and I don't feel a chill, I'll know it's time to go."

We all cringe at the incivility that has crept into the country's civil discourse. The hostile rhetoric we see on the news seems sideways with the majesty of the country's architecture and the monuments of democracy's giants.

But going to DC, actually visiting the halls of Congress, we were met with nothing but civility and respect by both parties. I've heard people grumble that those we send to Washington forget whom they are there to represent, but I found the opposite to be true. As Merrill Beyeler, -- in his hushed tones  -- explained to United States Senators and Representatives how altering irrigation practices made it possible for streams that had gone dry for 100 years to run freely again, how conservation works when it comes from the bottom up - the Senators and Representatives listened with intent and with the utmost respect.

I thought of the power of the people as we made our way back home to Salmon, via Ronald Reagan National Airport to Salt Lake and then into Butte, Montana, at nearly midnight, only to face the 150-mile drive home. We drove cautiously through the Big Hole, along the Big Hole River where massive elk and herds of deer congregate freely on Highway 43, oblivious to the danger our homeward bound automobile posed to them.

A bright half moon illuminated the otherwise unbroken night sky. Several miles before Wisdom, Montana, we rounded a bend and Big Hole River gleamed in the moonlight. Even in the dark, this wild landscape can manage to take my breath away. I think of my friend on Capitol Hill, and realize that if this place ever fails to send a chill down my spine, it's time to go.

Gina Knudson is the director of Salmon Valley Stewardship in Salmon, Idaho.