The U.S. is home to some of the most beautiful, incomparable places on the planet, from the pristine Shi Shi Beach at the Makah Reservation in Washington State to the Couturie Forest in New Orleans. But as climate change and development continue to threaten the country’s natural treasures, we explore the limits of traditional conservation and learn how innovation and Indigenous knowledge could shift how we protect the environment in the 21st century.
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STEPHEN WILKES (PHOTOGRAPHER): When we got in and when we were on the beach, the first thing you notice is the dramatic sea stacks that from a distance just, you know, they look like mountain ranges almost, but they’re so close.
AMY BRIGGS (HOST): In May 2022, National Geographic photographer Stephen Wilkes documented one of America’s most beautiful places: Shi Shi, a very remote, breathtaking beach in Olympic National Park at the northwest corner of Washington State.
And as Stephen was saying, a key feature of Shi Shi is its sea stacks, these rock towers—some over a hundred feet tall—that are spread out just off the shore.
WILKES: And suddenly you look at them closely and you begin to see they have trees growing out of them, and some of them have holes in them, so there are caves inside these things. And it sort of takes your breath away, to be frank with you.
BRIGGS: The Makah Nation, who have lived near Neah Bay for more than 3,800 years, historically managed the beach. The name Shi Shi is the Makah word for “smelt,” a species of small, silver fish that they caught there.
WILKES: But I have to say, I’ve never seen anything quite like Shi Shi. It’s the physical scale of it. Maybe also add in the sprinkle of the adventure to get into that place.
BRIGGS: To get to Shi Shi, Stephen and his crew spent about four hours hiking through the Olympic wilderness.
WILKES: You have to hike through this rainforest, which is in its own right, you know, really kind of mystical. It’s run by the Makah Nation, the Makah tribe. They control that area. And so they’ve done it in a very beautiful way. It’s all this natural sort of, it almost looks like logs that were, you know, just hewn, specifically, just as a pathway.
BRIGGS: They had to deal with hours of trudging through mud that was sometimes up to their shins while carrying backpacks that contained as much as 60 pounds of gear. And one morning, Stephen’s team woke up to find cougar prints at their campsite.
WILKES: To give you an idea how big this animal was, we have a picture of my assistant’s hand, Lenny, next to the footprint, and it’s as big as his handprint. So it was about a 150-pound cougar.
BRIGGS: But that was just the beginning—at the beach, they experienced weather that could turn on a dime, 17-foot swells during a full moon and 50-mile-per-hour winds. And to shoot the sea stacks, Stephen needed elevation, which is hard to find on a flat beach, so he ended up standing on a rock for about 20 hours.
WILKES: I was on a rock that was not flat. It was uneven. I had to literally torque my body, and so my hips had to be in one direction, my feet had to be in another direction, just to maintain stability. And when I would stand, it was very, very easy to lose balance.
BRIGGS: But all this danger and discomfort would be worth it if Stephen could fully capture the dynamic light at Shi Shi
WILKES: The gods were in alignment on that day. And that afternoon we started getting these dramatic cloud formations and the sunlight. You see the light, the glistening light on these waves and the way they explode on the rocks. And we saw bald eagles flying around. It was just unbelievable as all these things started to come together.
BRIGGS: Altogether, Stephen shot 1,600 frames, from mid-afternoon through sunset and sunrise. Then back in his home studio, he and his team stitched 46 of those frames together to depict an entire day in one image.
The colors in Stephen’s photograph are the clearest indication of time. As you move from left to right, the pink clouds of dawn transition to a clear blue sky of day, which then gives way to a starry indigo sky.
But then you see these sea stacks, and they look big. But their massive size only became obvious once I spotted a person standing on the beach. She is teeny tiny—the size of a bug next to these towers of rock.
Stephen’s photograph captures the simple grandeur of 24 hours at Shi Shi—a truly beautiful piece of America.
WILKES: I think that the beauty of Day to Night is that it not only … it engages viewers in a way to want to look more, learn more. But I think in the end, too, it transports you in a way, you know, to something that you want to be a part of. And I think that’s the excitement for me, is that how do we get people energized about wanting to make a difference and save what we have on this planet?
BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
Indigenous people like the Makah were stewards of American lands and resources for millennia, but in the last 200 years, human development and climate change have debilitated many areas across the United States. Vibrant, relatively healthy places like Shi Shi are becoming rarer.
Keeping American lands beautiful is a complex issue. Finding the way forward means navigating competing histories, ideas, and interests. This week, we’ll venture south of Shi Shi to a place that’s right in the middle of this process: the Klamath River Basin. We’ll hear from a tribal leader about the relationship between Native people and the Klamath River.
This summer, adventure is never far away with a free one-month trial to Nat Geo Digital. For starters, there’s full access to our online stories, with new stories published every day, plus every Nat Geo issue ever published in our digital archives! There’s a whole lot more for subscribers, and you can check it all out—for free—at natgeo.com/exploremore.
EMMA MARRIS (WRITER): I’ve spent a lot of time in my career thinking about how humans have influenced nature—partly because I think that a lot of us grew up with this kind of ideal of nature without humans, as the sort of pristine place apart that we could protect from our touch. And that would just go on forever.
BRIGGS: That’s Emma Marris, a National Geographic contributor and author who’s written books about conservation and climate change.
And this view of nature that Emma’s referring to is one that’s long been ingrained into American society—as far back as the late 19th century when John Muir first saw the unparalleled beauty of the Sierra mountains and vowed to preserve America’s wild places to landmark U.S. policies like the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defines wilderness as “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
MARRIS: But the more I looked into it as a journalist, the more I realized that this is not a real thing, this humanless wilderness. Virtually every single ecosystem on the planet has been influenced by people, either in deep time because of the way that humans changed ecosystems millennia ago or even just a few hundred years ago in terms of Indigenous land management practices that Western science is learning more and more about. And then, of course, today we continue to influence the rest of the world in a really major way with things like climate change and massive agricultural expansion.
BRIGGS: When Europeans first settled in North America in the 1500s, they saw forests, prairies, and rivers that they believed were pristine. But these places had been managed by Native Americans for thousands of years. Colonists weren’t able to recognize how the landscape was shaped by Indigenous practices and traditions.
MARRIS: They said, “Well, I don’t see the kind of manipulations of the land that I recognize. I don't see stone walls; private, individual ownership; crops laid out in little neat rows, little squares; all the things that I’m used to in Europe; so therefore, I’m assuming that these people don’t affect the land.”
BRIGGS: In reality, many Indigenous communities were influencing the landscape to ensure that ecosystems remained intact while also providing their communities with sustenance and resources. It was a complementary relationship rather than one of mastery. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, the Swinomish would create clam gardens.
MARRIS: People would arrange the intertidal zone, kind of managing the hydrology to create areas where clams would just grow in sort of hyperabundance that they could then come and harvest.
BRIGGS: And many Indigenous groups practiced cultural burning—small-scale fires that consumed fuel in the forest and helped generate acorns, hazelnut sticks, and other resources these communities depended on.
In 2019, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that there was greater diversity and abundance of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles on lands managed by Indigenous communities than on other parks and wildlife reserves.
MARRIS: I think part of what’s going on there is that tribal management isn't totally hands-off or isn’t trying to recreate this vision of an ecosystem that has no human touch. Rather, what they’re often doing is they’re doing a kind of management that’s sort of mutually beneficial, that's good for humans and nonhumans alike.
BRIGGS: So, if this idea of a humanless North American Eden is misguided, then what exactly is the goal of conservation?
MARRIS: Instead of just thinking about biodiversity as sort of a collecting game or a counting game, I’ve been thinking of the goal as more along the lines of getting our relationships with other species right. So this means not driving them extinct, but it also might mean something a little more nuanced than that. It’s how do we interact with all of the other species we share the planet with? What’s the right way to do that? And it’s a very complicated question that's very different on a case-by-case basis.
BRIGGS: In a way, Emma can look at what’s happening in what used to be her backyard to answer this question. Until recently, Emma lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon. It’s a town that sits just south of Crater Lake National Park and east of the Cascade mountains.
MARRIS: East of those mountains it’s actually very arid. It’s a desert. I live in a high desert ecosystem. There’s sagebrush out behind the house.
BRIGGS: But Emma also lived near something of an oasis. It’s called the Klamath River Basin. Before European settlers arrived, the upper part of the basin had about 350,000 acres of wetlands, marshes, and shallow lakes that served as habitat for many species.
DON GENTRY (FORMER TRIBAL COUNCIL CHAIRMAN): So we have a lot of waterfowl, migratory waterfowl, some resident birds. Highest population of wintering bald eagles. We have mehas—redband trout—that are still here, that are part of our Native fisheries.
BRIGGS: That’s Don Gentry, who recently retired after serving as the chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council for nine years. And before that, he spent 25 years working in the Klamath Tribes Natural Resources Department.
GENTRY: Archaeological evidence has us placed here for over 15,000 years, and of course we’ve been here since time immemorial.
BRIGGS: The Klamath tribes is made up of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin-Paiute people.
GENTRY: We’re at the very headwaters of the Klamath River, and it really starts out through a spring-dominated system up here. So the water just flows out of the ground at 42 degrees. Pristine, clear, ancient water.
BRIGGS: And at one time the Klamath River was the third largest salmon-producing river in the world.
GENTRY: And I have friends downriver, you know, that share salmon with me. You know, my grandson and I traded a deer for some salmon last year from a Yurok tribal member that caught fish right at the mouth.
BRIGGS: In the lakes that are connected to the river, there are two rare species of fish.
GENTRY: We have the c'waam and the koptu, which is the lost river and the shortnose suckers respectively.
BRIGGS: They’re not called suckers because they’re gullible. It’s their distinctive mouths that can hoover up food from the lake bottom that give them the name. Adults can grow over two feet long, though c’waam are typically a little bit bigger than koptu. And if the conditions are right, these fish can live for a pretty long time—the oldest c’waam on record was 57 years old. And for centuries, they have been a key food source for the Klamath tribes.
GENTRY: In regards to the c’waam and koptu, we have a story. There’s a place on the east side of Klamath Lake where the water flows under the surface of the lake water. That’s the place where the c’waam were created. And that place on the east side of the Klamath Lake, the common name now, English name, is Modoc Rim. But we called that niiLaks, which is “late sun rising place.”
All along Clay Lake to Modoc Point was a village. Our people lived there for thousands of years, but in the time of the creation of c’waam story, our people were having a difficult time. There was like a famine in the land. It was hard to gather all the berries that we needed, to hunt all the waterfowl, catch the other fish that were present here, the salmon, so we were struggling.
And to make matters worse, there was this two-horned creature, a snakelike being that was about four foot tall, that was plaguing our people and roaming around and, you know, invading our lutches, our pit houses, and attacking and eating our people. So we were praying to gmok’amc—gmok’amc, old man of the ancient times, the creator being—and asking him to help us. And as the creation story goes, he heard our prayers from the top of niiLaks and he came down with his obsidian knife and wrestled the two-horned creature and cut the creature up into thousands of pieces. And then he flung the flesh of the creature into the lake. As it hit the water, it turned into our c’waam, our koptu, our yen. And so Creator took something that was bad and made it good for our people.
And, you know, the legend just affirms we’re important to Creator, that there was a purpose for things. And the other part of that story that’s often shared is as long as the fish are here, the people will be here. So it’s a part of our subsistence. Creator placed everything here to where we weren’t farmers, we were hunters, fishermen, gatherers.
BRIGGS: Don says the Klamath tribes’ philosophy encouraged living sustainably with their environment.
GENTRY: In our traditional tribal worldview, everything that’s here is sacred because Creator placed it here for a purpose. It’s not all about us, and it’s not all about the individuals or even people. And we have a real … in our worldview we have a real responsibility of protecting everything that was here. When we gathered duck eggs and goose eggs from the marshes, we would leave eggs in the nest. When we hunted mule deer and other species, we only took what we needed and we used all that we took.
BRIGGS: Today, some members of the Klamath tribes still try to live in their traditional ways. But there’s a problem: The Klamath River Basin isn’t much of a wetland anymore.
MARRIS: We’re in a megadrought, if you haven’t heard. The biggest drought in 1,200 years.
BRIGGS: Yeah, the last 22 years have been the area’s driest period since the start of the scientific record, which goes back to around 800 CE. 2021 also saw record heat waves when it reached 119 degrees Fahrenheit in central Oregon.
Both the heat and drought set the stage for big, destructive wildfires. In July 2021, the Bootleg fire burned over 400,000 acres in southern Oregon.
GENTRY: It burned about 25 percent of our treaty rights area, then burned into our Aboriginal territory, into mule deer winter range, and other important places and archaeological sites.
BRIGGS: In the mid-20th century, hydroelectric dams were built on the Klamath River, preventing salmon from being able to swim upstream to their mating grounds, leading to a massive population decline.
And yet among the biggest changes to the basin was irrigated agriculture, which has dramatically drained the wetlands. And that has pushed the c’waam and koptu to the brink of extinction.
MARRIS: They are very endangered because of water quality issues in the lake now, because there's no more wetlands, because all that wetlands got drained for agriculture. And so all the soil in the whole basin just runs right into the lake. It’s volcanic soil, it’s rich in phosphorus. It kicks off these algae blooms, and then the algae blooms totally destroy the water quality in the lake, and all the little baby suckerfish die.
BRIGGS: And folks like Don find themselves in the position of having to fight for the wetlands, forests, and the fish that have sustained their communities for millennia.
GENTRY: There’s no other place in the world that these fish are. We’re down to a few thousand of the koptu, the shortnose sucker, and in the low ten thousands of the lost rivers in the Klamath Lake. If those fish go extinct, they’re extinct forever.
BRIGGS: To understand how the region ended up with these ecological problems, we have to travel back to the 19th century.
MARRIS: White fur trappers first came into this area, and they saw a gigantic wetland complex around the lake that was just massive and superproductive in terms of geese and ducks and swans and fish and people. There were, like, tons of people living here in all these different villages.
BRIGGS: As American settlers moved west, they entered into violent conflict with the Klamath tribes over these resources. In 1864, a treaty was negotiated between the tribes and the federal government. The Klamath ceded nearly 20 million acres of their homeland in exchange for peace, money, and services.
The tribes moved onto a reservation, and American farmers moved into the territory relinquished by the tribes. To further enhance agricultural development, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, at the time known as the Reclamation Service, dammed lakes and drained the marshlands.
In 1954, Congress ended federal oversight and obligations towards the tribes, and authorized the sale of land still held by the reservation.
GENTRY: So you could take a realized value, a cash value of what the federal government determined, the value of each member’s share of the tribal lands, tribal assets, would be, or you could have whatever’s left over managed by somebody. There was a lot of folks encouraging our people to take the money, take money for land, and the value of the land was basically the value of timber at the time.
Maybe some people were well intended, but I still think people wanted what we had. We had one of the most valuable ponderosa pine stands in the whole Pacific Northwest, and timber interests wanted that. So we eventually lost all that land, and then we were restored back to federal recognition in 1986.
BRIGGS: By the time the federal government recognized the Klamath tribes again, the landscape had changed.
GENTRY: Things are so out of whack in the forest. The mule deer that used to be here aren’t here. So there’s been a lot of changes that have affected all these resources.
BRIGGS: But in recent years, the tribes have been working with the U.S. Forest Service to resume cultural burning. And it’s likely the hydroelectric dams will be removed from the Klamath River by 2024.
GENTRY: As soon as you remove those dams, there will be more spawning habitat available for the salmon and steelhead to come up and take advantage of. The river will function more normally and flush out, you know, the diseases and kind of cleanse the spawning gravels and make it a little bit better for the fish. And if you do that for the salmon, it’s going to benefit the suckers.
BRIGGS: But water scarcity has complicated matters.
BRIGGS (to Emma Marris): How have, the ongoing drought in the West, how has that affected or complicated the situation with the Klamath?
MARRIS: It’s made things around here extremely tense, honestly, because in the last few growing seasons, farmers have been told they won’t have as much water as they need or as they say they need. Last year there was some murmuring around town that there was going to be some sort of protests, that possibly the irrigation headgates were going to get forced open in a sort of a display of rebellion. That didn’t end up happening, thank goodness. But it was really tense around town. And the hostile words about the tribes got pretty bad.
BRIGGS: Emma says, this year federal officials, through the Bureau of Reclamation, supplied water to farmers, even though that violated limits set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to help keep local fish species alive.
MARRIS: So in this case, the Fish and Wildlife Service says, Look, here’s what our scientists have said. The lake needs to be at least this high, not just for water quality but also just so that these suckerfish can physically reach the little kind of pebbly areas where they do their spawning. And the Bureau of Rec was like, thanks for your report. We’re just going to ignore it and give all the water to the farmers anyway. Not all the water, but we’re going to give water to the farmers, and the lake level is too low. So the Klamath tribes have sued, and that case is going to make its way through the process. That’s the big development this year.
BRIGGS: While Don is sympathetic to the concerns of farmers, he believes that there is a greater priority.
GENTRY: There’s just not enough water to serve everybody’s interests or needs. I mean, it should be the health of the ecosystem should come first.
BRIGGS: And what’s more, the Klamath tribes are fighting against the colonial ethos that created this situation in the first place.
GENTRY: And then the mindset, you know, that flows from the doctrine of discovery and manifest destiny and that everybody’s more important than us savages, and the land’s here for the taking. You know, free Indian land. You know, I mean, that’s kind of the thought that people had when they “settled here.” And, of course, we were already settled, we were already here. It really disturbs me, you know, that somehow if you marginalize people and even marginalize the things that are important to people, like the c’waam and koptu, that it’s okay to just take that for our own purposes and for our own, what we think is for our own good.
And so that’s the mindset that we’re dealing with. I call it the colonial spirit. And it not only happened here, it happened around the world, you know. And to me, Creator created us. We’re just as important as any other created being on the planet. And we should be honored and respected. And I’ve even heard people say that we wouldn’t have all these problems with the Indians if we would have done the job better and wiped them all out. You know, so we’re the problem. The fish are the problem. Is that really the truth? No.
BRIGGS: To keep this part of America beautiful, there would need to be changes.
MARRIS: Maybe we need to make some changes in the crops that we’re growing. And, you know, changes are not always easy for the agriculture community. It’s really easy to say, well, the farmers should just switch what they’re growing. But it is very difficult to pivot from one crop to another. And so what we do also need is for something like the federal government to come in and help make those changes easier on producers.
BRIGGS: There are some farmers who support conservation efforts, and they are using their farmland to do it. Emma interviewed one such farmer, Karl Wenner.
MARRIS: So first I should disclose that Karl’s a buddy of mine, that I met him years ago because of his interest in kind of creating solutions for the basin. And, so he’s a retired surgeon, but he’s also the co-owner of a small barley farm, barley potatoes, that’s right by the lake. And so he and his co-owners, for a long time they’ve practiced this thing called flood irrigation, where they essentially let part of the farm flood for part of the year. And then when it’s time to plant, they drain that water off and then they plant. It’s actually a pretty common way to irrigate around here. And one of its benefits is that when the water is on the land, it’s basically like a little temporary wetland, and ducks love it and, you know, other waterfowl love it.
BRIGGS: But, the farm’s phosphorus-rich soil pollutes the lake, so Karl and his co-owners sat down with representatives from the Klamath Watershed Partnership, a local nonprofit, and various government agencies to figure out how to stop the phosphorus from getting into the lake.
MARRIS: And he got all this funding to create a wetland on the farm that will filter that water before he releases it back into the lake. So the wetland originally, the purpose of it, sort of, from a regulatory standpoint, is to clean his water before he returns it to the lake. But the bonus is now he’s got a wetland on his farm, and there’s tons of birds and animals using this wetland. And he just recently, he just had a bunch of baby c’waam and koptu released into his wetland. And so the fish can swim around in there. And in fact, that kind of vegetation, dense, shallow water, is perfect habitat for them when they’re babies and they need a place to hide from osprey and from other predators.
BRIGGS: This battle over water will likely continue to play out in the Klamath Basin for years to come, but Don and Emma are hopeful.
MARRIS: But one thing that I think we can all agree on is that if something goes extinct, that cuts off a lot of possibilities. So for me, I think what’s most important is not making things look pure or pristine, but just keeping possibilities open for the future, so that our descendants, our shared descendants as humanity, will be able to have all of the species and all the players to work with as they try to create good relationships with the nonhuman world.
That means that if we have to choose between potatoes that are getting sold to Frito-Lay or the suckerfish going extinct, I’m going to vote for saving the suckerfish, because you can always grow more potatoes. They’re not going to go extinct. If we lose the c’waam or if we lose the koptu, we are losing all those possibilities for the future.
GENTRY: You know, it’s an environmental justice issue. So all we’re asking is to protect the remnant, I say remnant, of what we once had. We know how the politics work—it takes local citizens to come together in unity and support so we can get the funding to fix the problems. And so that’s a united effort. Focusing on the real problems and solutions rather than, you know, making each other the enemies.
BRIGGS: If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and please consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.
Check out Stephen Wilkes’s Day to Night photograph from Shi Shi and Emma Marris’s article on conservation in the September issue of National Geographic magazine.
And see even more of America’s most spectacular locations and diverse species in America the Beautiful. Hosted by Michael B. Jordan, this docuseries is now streaming on Disney+. We’ve put a link in the show notes where you can learn more.
And if you haven’t already, listen to the Overheard episode “This Indigenous Practice Fights Fire With Fire,” to learn more about the practice of cultural burning.
They’re all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Khari Douglas.
Our producers include Ilana Strauss.
Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Ted Woods sound-designed this episode, and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Stephen Wilkes.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see ya next time.
Learn about the Makah’s efforts to resume their practice of hunting gray whales, which was banned in the mid-1900s, in this article by Emma Marris.
See even more of America’s most spectacular locations and diverse species in America the Beautiful. Hosted by Michael B. Jordan, this docuseries is now streaming on Disney+.
As massive wildfires continue to wreak havoc in the American West, Indigenous people are reviving centuries-old cultural burning practices to protect their communities. Learn more about cultural burning in the Overheard episode “This Indigenous Practice Fights Fire With Fire.”
See more of photographer Stephen Wilkes’s Day to Night photos and learn about how he creates them in this article.
Read Emma Marris’s article about the Indigenous people living in Peru’s Manú National Park.
Check out Emma Marris’s article on conservation in the upcoming issue of National Geographic magazine. Available online here in September.
How many counties in the contiguous U.S. have water or land worth conserving? Every single one. Explore this map to see what value each has for conservation.