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How About Bailing Out `Liquid Assets?'

This commentary was written by James Workman, a former speechwriter and special assistant to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the Clinton administration. He now works as an environmental consultant and is the author of the upcoming work,

Silicon Valley honchos brag how their high tech solutions tap liquid assets to create wealth. So why are the only ones investing energy in fresh wild Pacific salmon the local homeless armed with shopping carts?
Salmon used to be the poor man's food. Long a staple of Native American diets, salmon spawned so abundantly in Western rivers that farmers had to pitch-fork them out of clogged irrigation canals. Miners rioted if fed salmon more than four times a week.

But declining habitat due to those same agribusinesses and mines, Chinook and other salmon were limited to only the rich. America recently declared a moratorium on Pacific salmon catching, hoping to restore depleted stocks. Commercial fishermen howled. Affluent foodies scowled. No one's happy…except, ironically, for some lucky poor.

Carson Cox, senior water resource specialist at the Natural Heritage Institute, tells me the impoverished homeless of San Jose are using abandoned shopping carts to catch and eat healthy wild salmon in Guadalupe Creek as it flows through downtown San Jose. My shock isn't the lawbreaking - it's the discovery there's something in there worth poaching, but no one recognizes the hidden opportunity literally right under their feet.

The city had turned its back on that creek as a drainage ditch. The Water District saw it as a pesky flood nuisance. But if rational people forget ancient rhythms, `transrational' salmon never do.

Three lessons rise to the surface in this unusual story, none trivial. First, salmon are resilient and opportunistic wild animals. They don't need much to roar back in prolific numbers. A few dogged individuals invested sweat equity and a few bucks to build fish ladders a decade ago, and it paid off a hundredfold. For tens of thousands of dollars sunk into Butte Creek, obsolete irrigation dams were removed; weeks later 20,000 Chinook came back to spawn and die as they had for eons before those dams and diversions were built. Talk about high return on investment.

Also, salmon embody the concept of "natural capitalism." There's billions of dollars worth of commercial activity within a few miles of that river. But as they like to say here, "that's just on paper." It's dubious whether drought-struck, budget-strapped San Jose fully appreciates the untapped liquid asset flowing within its midst. It keeps dragging feet over modest costs of environmentally robust flood control measures, when restored watersheds would augment real estate values by so much that the new tax revenues generated as a byproduct would eclipse what the city needs to allocate.

Finally, there's the link between flesh and spirit and policy. The mystery of salmon spawning in Silicon Valley offers more than sustenance for the homeless or the affluent - though there is that. Salmon remind us of timeless renewal in a grim but temporary age of recession. As they splash back up through the epicenter of the nation's high tech headquarters, salmon offer a wet shock to our well insulated and all too virtual world.

Right now America's throwing trillions to bail out banks, rescue failing industries and prop up inflated real estate - all without considering the natural resource foundation on which all these values depend. Watersheds have more than a few toxic assets worth buying up and cleaning out first, but few consider a river "too big to let it fail."

It's time U.S. policymakers stopped thinking of nature as a liability to overcome, somehow separate from our human economy, and instead repositioned the 1973 Endangered Species Act as the 2009 Undervalued Asset Act that it really is.

By James Workman