CAREERS PODCASTS


Guido Rahr
President and CEO
Wild Salmon Center

In this inspiring podcast, meet Guido Rahr, conservationist and CEO of one of Orrick’s longtime pro bono clients, the Wild Salmon Center. Guido talks with Mitch about his unique approach to protecting wild salmon ecosystems and why we should all “fall in love with a river.” Mitch also published a Business Insider opinion on how entrepreneurs can apply Guido’s stronghold strategy to make their companies stronger.

Guido Rahr

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Resources

• Wild Salmon Center Website

• Guido’s Biography

Show Notes

Mitch Zuklie:

Hi, this is Mitch, with another version of our podcast. Today's guest is Guido Rahr, who is a globally recognized leader in the conservation movement and the CEO of the Wild Salmon Center, which is a long-time Orrick pro bono client. Among the many ways in which Guido and the Wild Salmon Center have made an impact is by helping usher in laws that restrict mining, logging and hatchery fish production in the Pacific Northwest; significant conservation efforts in Alaska; and massive efforts in the Kamchatka Peninsula, which is in the Russian Far East, that have helped convert 2.7million acres of salmon strongholds into national parks, with an additional 4million acres proposed for protection. Guido is pioneering in his approach for conservation and is the subject of a new biography entitled "Strongholds" (the meaning of which we will cover in a moment), which, as the New York Times reports in its glowing book review, is a book that makes Guido's passion for salmon contagious, and I couldn't agree more. I've gotten to know Guido through both Mark Weeks and Lily Becker and our shared interests in fly-fishing, which got me very interested in the conservation work of the Wild Salmon Center, and I've been very fortunate to be able to serve on the Board of that organization and learn an awful lot more about conservation from Guido. Guido, thank you enormously for joining us and for sharing some insights on the important work that you are doing.

Guido Rahr:

You are very welcome.

Mitch:

So, can you talk to us first about salmon: Why are they so important? Why is this something that you are dedicating your life to focusing on?

Guido:

Well, there are a couple different reasons. The first one is biological. Conservation biologists have a term for a species that's in a food web and in an ecosystem that has a disproportionately large impact on the species around it. And they call that species the keystone species. Just like the keystone of a house. Salmon are the keystone species for the watersheds that flow into the Northern Pacific Rim, which is a vast geography, basically from Japan up the Russian Far East, across the Bering Sea, Alaska, British Columbia, and then down to California. The salmon runs that run up those rivers each year like clockwork deliver vast amounts of marine nutrients that drive the health of those food webs. The bears eat the salmon, the caddis flies eat the salmon, the orcas eat the salmon, and indigenous groups completely depend upon the wild salmon in all those watersheds. Finally, it's a food security issue for humans. Salmon is one of the healthiest, safest and most sustainable sources of food protein. So salmon are not just another species. And let me just say one additional point: In conservation of natural resources, you really have to focus on the conservation of the ecosystem because no constituent species can survive without its habitat and the other species it interacts with.

Mitch:

There has been an awful lot of effort to conserve some of the same regions that you're focused on. What makes the Wild Salmon Center's mission different and what unique role does it play in the conservation sphere?

Guido:

We are very distinct in a couple of important ways. First of all, we're targeting salmon ecosystems, but we're not targeting the most endangered ones. Instead, we're targeting the least threatened ones right now because we know it'll just be a matter of time before they, too, are threatened. The rate of development projected for the next 50years is dramatic, and it's being driven by increasing demands for water and food. Everything is going to be threatened eventually. So, our view is we're taking the long view. We are targeting a select number of watersheds, and we're going to protect those and defend those against the next generation of threats. Right now there are dramatic threats to some of those salmon strongholds, but it's a very distinct deliverable. We're not saving all the salmon, solving all the problems, saving all the fish; we're just targeting a set number of salmon watersheds, which are huge in each region of the Northern Pacific Rim.

Mitch:

When you think about some of the great challenges that you are facing in saving these strongholds—these pristine ecosystems that are intact—what are the greatest challenges that they face right now?

Guido:

The biggest challenge is what's going to happen next. If a massive gold project, mining project or hydroelectric project, or large-scale clearcutting or agriculture comes in, the amount of money that comes in makes it very hard for those on the non-governmental side, the conservation side, to fight back. The biggest challenge is targeting a system, building a local conservation group that is there that can defend it, and building a local conservation capacity and infrastructure, social infrastructure, so that when the next bad thing comes they can protect it and defend it successfully.

Mitch:

When you think about the way you partner with other organizations, which I think is an important component of what you do, can you explain a little bit about the Wild Salmon Center's scientific focus and how it partners with local organizations?

Guido:

We are very careful to be a science-based organization. We are pragmatic, not dogmatic, and we are using science to tell us where to work, what we need to do, and what it looks like when we're done. But that's the “what.” The “how” to get that done, science won’t inform, and we found that the most successful strategy to getting that habitat protection in and protecting the fish themselves is either to create a local organization or partner with one that exists and help strengthen it. So we’ve created 13 new organizations or coalitions, and we've now all of our work is through these local groups. And if we put them out in front, they'll have the social license and often the passion needed to succeed. That's a very different model than opening chapters of yourself. So, it’s local partners, local capacity and based on science. And then the third piece is being willing to stay in the game for decades.

Mitch:

When you think about the biggest threat that you see right now to one of your strongholds, where is that?

Guido:

We are fighting the most important stronghold in the world: the Pebble Mine at Bristol Bay, Alaska. Bristol Bay is north of the Alaska panhandle, in western Alaska, and it is a series of lakes and rivers that produces more salmon than any other single place in the world. Bristol Bay produces up to 65million salmon returning to those rivers each year. There’s absolutely nothing like it on the planet Earth. It’s one of the great miracles of nature.

Mitch:

Let’s pause on that for a second. Sixty-fivemillion salmon. At its height, what did the Columbia River basin produce, do you think?

Guido:

Maybe 20million.

Mitch:

So you’re talking, today, a number that is more than three times that.

Guido:

Yes, it’s spectacular, and it’s driven mostly by the sockeye salmon runs. They’ve evolved to live in those big post-glacial lakes. The problem is a Canadian mining company has discovered a massive deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, and nobody ever thought that they could get permits to do something this crazy.

We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the Pacific Northwest and California to restore salmon that are on the edge of extinction, and yet we will let a Canadian company build a massive gold mine upstream from the most important salmon runs in the world? And the pollution that that will create is manifested in the form of tailings—that’s the refuse rock—and that leaches toxins into the environment forever. The mess will be up there in geologic time contained by an earthen tailings dam that’s 600feet high. So visualize that amount of toxins, and it’s lying on top of a zone that is prone to earthquakes. The Lake Clark fault zone goes right under the site.

Mitch:

When was the last time that that fault zone was active?

Guido:

There was a 6.4 Richter scale earthquake in 2016. So this is a really bad idea…

Mitch:

And what are you guys doing to try to prevent Pebble? What’s the fight like right now?

Guido:

The main fight right now is in Washington, D.C., and in the federal agencies and in the House and the Senate. The current presidential administration, the Trump administration, is pushing to get this mine permitted within the next 12months or by fall 2020. It is a train going down the track, and the Corps of Engineers is the one responsible for approving what’s called the Environmental Impact Statement. And the Corps is determined to get this thing through under pressure from the White House. The other federal agencies and all the members of the scientific community are aghast and terrified that this thing could actually be permitted. And right now, it’s a toss-up whether we can stop it or not.

Mitch:

Guido, when you think about some of the work that you guys have been able to accomplish, what are you most proud of?

Guido:

I would say there’s two things that I’m very proud of. One is that we’ve managed to establish a few whole watershed protected areas dedicated to salmon and their ecosystems. That means brown bears, Steller’s eagles, marine mammals—many different species. And a watershed is a contained ecosystem, basically. We’ve done that in the Russian Far East. We’ve done it three times so far, and we’ve had more chances. And that—just the feeling that there’s a pristine watershed that has a good chance at being around for my grandchildren—that is an incredibly rewarding feeling.

Now, the second thing I’m proud of is building local conservation groups or supporting them. And we’ve got some good local partners. When you see them win, and we share in that moment of exultation, that’s a great feeling. And when we make a place-based win, and we stop something bad from happening.

Mitch:

Which you do with some frequency.

Guido:

You know, I’d say that we’re doing a good job—we’re winning more and more. I think we’re maybe winning more than we’re losing. I just want to be very careful when I make that statement, because…

Mitch:

Knock on wood.

Guido:

Knock on wood. And who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Mitch:

What role has Orrick played in helping you do all that?

Guido:

Orrick has been really great with the Wild Salmon Center. I mean, I don’t know what we would do. Mark Weeks has been a fantastic partner, and Mitch has come on the Board and is not just a passive Board member. He is a very engaged Board member with his sleeves rolled up, really helping us and giving us leadership. Orrick and Mitch have helped us financially, which is really important for an organization like ourselves. And helped us with pro bono work. And, critically, we need to build a better base of support down here in the Bay Area. And Orrick has been fantastic there, too.

Mitch:

What can we do as individuals to help you in your mission, more fully?

Guido:

I’d say three things. We are building an army, so get involved with the Wild Salmon Center on our website, support our organization, get into the communication stream, is one. The second is the political fight over the Pebble Mine in Alaska; protecting Bristol Bay is critical, so your elected officials in Congress are key, and we can guide you on how to interact with them on the website. And the third thing is to fall in love with a river and take your children out there. Get waist deep and let it wake up the primordial part of your mind and wake your heart up to help protect that place that you love.

Mitch:

That’s great advice. Guido, thank you enormously for joining us and for sharing some insights into the critically important work that you and the organization are doing. And thank you for your long-term partnership with Orrick. We’re proud to be associated with you guys.

Guido:

And we are proud to work with Orrick, and to pursue this fantastic mission. Mitch, thank you for helping make it happen.

Mitch:

Total pleasure. Thanks, Guido.