McGuffie on Hirsch, 'Anticipating Future Environments: Climate Change, Adaptive Restoration, and the Columbia River Basin'

Shana Lee Hirsch
Joshua McGuffie

Shana Lee Hirsch. Anticipating Future Environments: Climate Change, Adaptive Restoration, and the Columbia River Basin. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020. 232 pp. $30.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-295-74748-4; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74729-3; $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74749-1.

Reviewed by Joshua McGuffie (University of California, Los Angeles) Published on H-Environment (August, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

Shana Lee Hirsch invites her readers to think about the relationships between climate change, scientific ways of knowing, and nature in her accessibly written monograph about the restoration of salmon habitat in the Columbia River basin. In Anticipating Future Environments: Climate Change, Adaptive Restoration, and the Columbia River, she considers how climate change is driving transformations within the science and practices behind habitat restoration as well as effecting changes within the river basin itself. Using methods from history, science and technology studies (STS), and ethnography, she makes restorationists, largely scientists and laypeople who work for various federal, tribal, and local governments, the main actors in the story. Salmon, beavers, and the river play supporting, though key, roles.

Hirsch frames the problem of climate change and habitat restoration along the Columbia as an epistemic matter. How do restorationists understand the environments they work with as they try to bring back salmon habitat? Climate change drives this story about ways of knowing. Much of the book revolves around restorationists’ concern that historical habitats may no longer serve the fish they hope to save in view of rising river temperatures and new, unstable hydrographic regimes. To zero in on matters of knowing, Hirsch focuses on what she calls “adaptive epistemologies” or “the ways that scientists adjust their scientific practices, the knowledge infrastructures that facilitate these practices, and the institutions and organizations that are co-produced by them” (p. 36). Through this expansive lens she keeps matters of scientific ideas and practices, matters of law and policy, and matters of biology and nature in creative tension.

In terms of readership, Hirsch offers a monograph that will appeal to a variety of scholars, practitioners of restoration, and students. Her interpretation of restorationists as an epistemic community puts the book in conversation with STS scholars and historians of science. Readers coming from these traditions will find meat to chew on as she interprets her actors’ practices through the work of Bruno Latour and Ian Hacking. Hirsch’s epistemic reflections put her in conversation with Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison as well as with Hans Jörg Rheinberger’s An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life (2010). Environmental historians will find solace in her appeals to William Cronon, Mark Fiege, and Richard White’s magisterial book on the Columbia, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1995). Amid all this historiography, Hirsch attends to policy matters, looking to the work of scholars like Sheila Jasanoff. One could easily imagine using Anticipating Future Environments in an undergraduate seminar in environmental history with a focus on scientists or in environmental policy.

Structurally, Hirsch presents her readers with historical background of biology on the Columbia River and then transitions to contemporary ethnographic vignettes about restorationists. She uses 2015 as an index moment to make the story one about scientists responding to climate change. That year saw very low snowfall in the mountains of the Columbia basin. It also saw record high water temperatures along the Columbia and resultant disastrous fish kills. Hirsch begins the book with a description of this potentially new normal. She refers back to it throughout the book as a way to keep readers in the mindset of restorationists confronting climate change in all they do.

Attentive to historical context, Hirsch begins the book with a chapter on the development of science and infrastructure along the Columbia and its tributaries. Readers meet Harlan Holmes, who worked for the Bureau of Fisheries in the 1920s. Hirsch uses archival materials from the University of Washington’s Special Collections to describe his initial studies and surveys of salmon life in the great river. Holmes spent the ’20s frustrated by inept assistants and imprecise methods for taking stock of Columbia fisheries. Over time, his work migrated from pure to applied science. Holmes left behind his program to create a synoptic look at salmon in the river to work on producing technologies to help salmon migrate over the huge new Bonneville Dam. Hirsch uses his story as a springboard to get into the relationship between scientific ideas and policy. From Hirsch’s work she takes readers through the dam-building period on the Columbia and up to the effects of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The trick works and readers will find in Holmes’s career an interesting historical blueprint for later science along the river.

Chapter 2 introduces readers to the development of habitat restoration as a science and practice within the Columbia basin. In keeping with her analysis of the discipline’s practitioners as an epistemic community, she takes her readers to the River Restoration Northwest Symposium, an important annual gathering of restorationists. The chapter discusses some disciplinary history and some of the boundary work that restorationists have done to define themselves. But the most important thread running through the chapter has to do with ideas. Hirsch outlines the ideas that underpinned an engineering approach to restoration, which focused on building channels in order to allow for the most efficient passage of migrating salmon. She also introduces readers to process restoration, a new and competing set of ideas that favor the creation of braided channels adorned with eddies, fallen trees, and uneven banks. The chapter shows the intimate connection between competing scientific ideas and the production of new nature.

Chapter 3 begins the first deep dive into a restoration case study. Hirsch shines as an ethnographer here, and the chapter could be used on its own in an undergraduate course as a vignette on scientific practices and nature. She introduces her readers to Sean Gallagher, who works for the Northwest Watershed Institute on Tarboo Creek, a watercourse on the Olympic Peninsula. Hirsch uses his career to show both how ideas move and how they bring about changes in the land. Gallagher began his career as a layperson but eventually earned a degree in fisheries biology and became a disciple of process restoration. He helped plant over ninety thousand trees in the Tarboo watershed. He also helped reintroduce beavers as a means to naturally produce habitat that might help restore the Tarboo's coho salmon run. Despite these successes, Hirsch emphasizes Gallagher's worries about how climate change may make the creek unlivable for the fish he has worked to save. Though this story takes readers out of the Columbia basin in terms of geography, the habitat restoration work of the Northwest Watershed Institute fits nicely into the larger narrative.

Chapter 4 takes readers back to the Columbia basin, to the Methow Valley (pronounced Met-how), in northern Washington State. Readers learn about the Methow Beaver Project, an initiative organized by the US Forest Service to reintroduce beavers in the watershed and to construct Beaver Dam Analogs (BDAs) in order to restore salmon spawning habitat. Historically considered nuisances in the basin because they introduce complexity to river channels, beavers had been hunted to regional oblivion. But now restorationists believe that their riverine engineering helps salmon runs. Telling the story of the Beaver Project allows Hirsch to think epistemologically about restoration. The project exists as something of a hybrid between the contrasting styles of restoration, engineering, and process that Hirsch introduced in chapter 2. Reintroducing actual beavers fits into a process mold while physically building BDAs out of concrete and other products fits into an engineering mold. The bonds between ideas and the creation of nature leap off the page.

Chapters 5 and 6 step back from specific field vignettes to reflections on scientific methodologies that restorationists are using and adapting on the river today in response to climate change. In chapter 5, Hirsch considers the problem of fish monitoring. This biological practice bedeviled Holmes back in the 1920s and continues to make matters complicated for restorationists in the present. Again, readers find themselves amid conflicting ideas about what data best can help salmon runs. Some restorationists think that monitoring reduces the river to data from fish counts. Others find fish counts essential for producing new habitat. Treating restorationists as an epistemic community, Hirsch introduces readers to the Pacific Northwest Aquatic Monitoring Partnership. This effort exists as a standardized reporting infrastructure for federal, state, tribal, and not-for-profit restorationists as they monitor salmon runs. Policy, practice, and scientific ideas collide in the partnership. Chapter 6 introduces readers to the problem of computer models in the work of restoration. Hirsch looks at the Forest Service’s NorWeST StreamTemp project, a water temperature collection process that produces data for temperature modelers anticipating climate change. This chapter might be most interesting to biologists.

In the conclusion, Hirsch again zeroes in on restoration in a particular watershed, the Lemhi River in Idaho. She describes the partnership between ranchers and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The unlikely working relationship shows how malleable ideas can help distinct actors work together to manipulate a local environment for the sake of a salmon run.

All told, Anticipating Future Environments offers readers a helpful theoretical and practical look at salmon restoration on the Columbia in light of climate change. Hirsch focuses on histories, ethnographies, and policy matters without any clunky transitions. Historians may wish for more detailed footnotes when she engages in archival work, but given Hirsch’s background in policy and cultural studies, the historical sections of the story work very well. She describes the science and work of restorationists thoroughly enough that neophytes can follow her story with ease, and she grounds the present effectively in the past. Hirsch’s book makes a welcome contribution to the literature on habitat restoration and the Columbia River basin.

Citation: Joshua McGuffie. Review of Hirsch, Shana Lee, Anticipating Future Environments: Climate Change, Adaptive Restoration, and the Columbia River Basin. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL:

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