Salmon go swoosh in the Northwest

  It was Saturday, and we had shopping to do: groceries, eyeglasses, yard tools, and as we crisscrossed Portland to find deals, we were sucked into malls, lured by displays to purchase jeans and sports paraphernalia.

Then, in the middle of the overcast Oregon afternoon, in the heart of Northwest cool known as the Pearl District, there it was: shoulder-to-shoulder people buzzing about something called "Salmon Nation."

Curious, we pushed into the fray, where a bluegrass band played on a stage set in front of one of the Pearl’s new housing developments. A Native American woman with a "Makah Nation" sweatshirt grooved to the music of the Gypsy Kings at a children’s activities booth. Someone had hauled a fishing boat into the plaza, where a grizzled fisherman in yellow rubber trousers sold wild salmon for $4.50 a plate.

And everywhere was the little red fish logo that could only be described as looking like the Nike swoosh.

"This is the weirdest thing ever," Erin said. "What do they want you to do? Eat salmon? Save salmon?"

No matter: Her attention was hooked by a newly sworn-in citizen of Salmon Nation carting away a tote bag with the swoosh fish silk-screened onto it: "Ooooh, I want one of those bags."

On the stage, the emcee was pumping up the crowd. I hoped she would explain what Salmon Nation was. "In Salmon Nation, you gotta be able to party!" was all she yelled. "You gotta be able to dance!"

She introduced Spencer Beebe, a co-founder of Ecotrust, the Portland-based nonprofit that’s behind Salmon Nation. "You all understand in your own way what Salmon Nation means," Beebe said. "It’s a place where salmon go with the people who live there. It’s prosperous, wild salmon runs and a vibrant economy."

Beebe gazed out at the crowd of stroller-pushing parents and skeptical teenagers, who looked as if they’d like to get their groove going with the next band. "Um, that’s all Salmon Nation is about."

The world is becoming a shopping mall, proclaims Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the recent book, "The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping." Museums, universities and churches, he says, are all succumbing to the consumer ethic. Even monasteries are being "inflated to the scale of department stores." Eventually, Koolhaas predicts, "there will be little for us to do but shop."

Whether people are buying a product or buying an idea no longer matters. Salmon Nation’s creators understand this. Way back in the 20th century, Ecotrust came up with a concept called the "conservation economy." It used social and biological models to explain how people could live in balance with the ecosystems around them, and how economies should conform to watersheds rather than political boundaries.

"It was a lot of stuff to swallow," says Melissa Tatge, the Ecotrust designer who led the Salmon Nation campaign. "People weren’t grasping it."

When Ecotrust brought the idea to Dan Wieden of Wieden + Kennedy, the firm that has handled advertising for Nike and Microsoft, he shook his head, says Tatge. Wieden recommended that Ecotrust "self-story" -- that’s advertising lingo for building on what people already know. People know fish. Bingo. You have your brand: salmonnation.com.

Of course, the brand is not an end in itself. Ecotrust’s brass hope Salmon Nation is the river that will lead unsuspecting swimmers upstream to the headwaters of the conservation economy. The Salmon Nation Web site breaks the vision down into five tenets, each a simple one-liner, each touted by a cartoon person or animal: "We all live downstream," "There is enough for everyone," and so on. These lead to further, more complex explanations.

And Ecotrust is not the first Western environmental group to use branding. The Sierra Club recently announced that its brand will be showing up on everything from pillows to toys. The club hopes to raise roughly $1 million a year from sales while turning customers into club members.

Before long, the agendas of profit and agendas of activism may be indistinguishable under thick coats of marketing. And why not? It makes sense for corporations and environmental activists to steal each other’s strategies.

The conservation economy could fill a PowerPoint presentation, but Salmon Nation can fill a public plaza in one of the hippest places in the country. Take your pick. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where tech industries cross-pollinate with the creative class in an air of ecological consciousness, Saturday’s crowd seemed to say the time is ripe for Salmon Nation.

I’ll tell you one thing: The next time I cross a river, I’ll stop and look down.

Tim Sullivan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He freelances from Portland, Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...