Voyage of the Beaver 

Nature’s engineers — and environmental heroes — make a comeback in western U.S.

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High Country News

Even with a tall wooden cross mounted on the wall behind her, Mary O'Brien doesn't look like a typical preacher. In her blue cardigan and jeans, a single heavy braid falling like a gray rope down her back, she paces slowly from side to side, telling her listeners that we are worshipping a false landscape.

She means the West of fast-flowing streams and invitingly open banks, celebrated in photographs and songs and pickup truck commercials. That West is a modern illusion, she warns, even though we accept it as gospel and praise its beauty.

Several dozen people lean forward in the burnt-orange pews, intently focussing on O'Brien's message.

We have lost touch with a truer, older West, she goes on. But there is a saviour who can lead us back to it: the beaver.

Castor canadensis, believe it or not, is a time shifter. The humble, hardworking rodent, through its dams and ponds, can extend the release of water late into summer, saturating the ground and healing watersheds. It has the power to re-create the primordial, wetter West that existed for millennia - a West we just missed seeing.

"Restoration of the beaver is restoration of a landscape we don't have a cultural connection to," O'Brien says, "because they largely were trapped out."

Let us repent.

Beaver are a keystone species: Amen. Beaver restore riparian habitat: Amen. Beaver raise up the water table: Amen. Beaver show us the Western landscape as it was just prior to permanent white settlement. A big amen for this.

"You're not just preaching to the choir," someone sings out. "We are actually in the pews!"

O'Brien, a commandingly tall and angular woman who's a Grand Canyon Trust project manager, helped organize this "Working Beaver Conference." The setting - creaky old Zephyr Lodge on Liberty Lake, just east of Spokane - is a Christian-run conference center, which explains the pews and the cross.

About 70 enthusiasts in the lonely world of beaver restoration - including hydrologists, biologists and economists - have come from around the West for two days of workshops, slideshows and the rare chance to meet like-minded others. Storm-darkened springtime skies cast a gloomy light, but the talk crackles furiously.

North America had at least 60 million beaver before European settlement, according to the most-commonly cited estimate. Explorer David Thompson walked across much of the continent about 200 years ago and observed that it was "in the possession of two distinct races of beings, man and the beaver."

Historical trapping records in the Colorado Rockies show "60 to 80 beaver" per mile of stream, says Trey Schillie, an ecosystem services analyst for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. That abundance was repeated across the West.

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