A River Between Us: Bridging Generations of Conflict on the Klamath

September 1, 2015

Jason A. Atkinson, Filmmaker and Former Oregon State Senator

Five years ago, even my closest friends were skeptical: You’re leaving the state senate to go raise money to make an environmental film for an audience who doesn’t care, create political cover for President Obama — and heal 100 years of racial wounds?

I confess, when you put it all into one sentence, it is a big shift. But I have something big to show for it. With support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and other Pacific Northwest funders, A River Between Us will be nationally released in October. This film, directed by Jeff Martin, documents the largest river restoration project in U.S. history. This unique case of collaboration, in a place most Americans can't find on a map, is a prime example for the rest of the country to follow.

Nearly 300 miles long, flowing from southern Oregon to northern California, the Klamath River has been a source of conflict between conservationists, tribes, farmers, fishermen, and state and federal agencies for generations. Our documentary examines this complicated history: how anger, fear and distrust have undermined the Klamath River Basin's communities for decades. Balancing the sheer beauty of the river's surface with its underlying ills of injustice and inequality, the film focuses on the personal stories of the people who finally chose to put the past behind them and come together to create a historic water rights compromise for the good of all.

To Save A River, You Must First Heal A People

The Klamath River is in my bones. I was commanded by my grandparents to restore the decimation, environmentally and socially, that we’ve seen happen over the past five generations. Historically, second only to the Columbia River, the Klamath was the Pacific Northwest’s salmon capital before four dams were installed along it: three in California and one in Oregon. But dams are really not the story at all. True: the dams have provide no irrigation or benefit to agriculture (and no significant electrical power). But they are symbolic of the West’s longest running water war, the division of Oregon and California, the anvil of the secessionist movement, and a constant physical reminder of the tragedy that has plagued three very different Native American nations.

This is the biggest conservation restoration project in U.S. history — larger than the Everglades or Yellowstone — but failed politics delayed it for years, degrading its potential for greatness into 10-second partisan sound bites.

The good news is A River Between Us is not about any of those things. It’s about people. “If you heal people, they’ll heal the river” is perhaps the most simple and yet revolutionary statement. Politicians and policymakers, people who take subways to work, viewers who can't find the Klamath River on a map or even know where their salmon comes have embraced this film as evidence of what can happen when people live out the words of the greats: peacemakers, community, humility and the deep understanding their enemies’ children matter as much as their own.

A good friend who directs a large Pacific Northwest trust once told me, “Philanthropy dollars are risk dollars.” He meant that philanthropy often funds movements that don’t make business sense, but do make human sense. This project could not have been completed without the philanthropic sector's support and conviction that the impossible is possible.

A River Between Us Trailer 10 23 14 from It Matters on Vimeo.

A River Between Us started as an idea that made my friends nervous, but today the entire project is ready to show everyone a new road forward on conservation, river restoration and racial healing from a place most Americans didn’t know existed. My friends in the philanthropic community understood it quickly, and the success of changing the world is shared with everyone — what could be, what will be — in human terms. A River Between Us, a new way to look at your neighbor and your community, all from a forgotten place.

Jason A. Atkinson was a Republican state senator representing Oregon's 2nd District from 2001 to 2013.

Upcoming opportunities to view A River Between Us include a Sept. 2 screening at the Portland Film Festival, followed by the Oregon Coast Film Festival in October and the Friday Harbor Film Festival in November.