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1995: He'd rather be fishing

During more than 30 years of advocating on behalf of the Rogue River and its wild salmon, lawyer Bob Hunter was very much the accidental activist.

The soft-spoken, fly-fishing barrister with a distaste for attention and a dislike of confrontations plunged himself into bitterly divisive battles that eventually led to the removal of five fish-killing dams in the Rogue Basin, including two — Savage Rapids and Gold Ray — that returned the Rogue to 157 miles of free-flowing water for the first time in more than a century.

“It’s not like there aren’t other things I’d rather be doing,” Hunter was quoted as saying in the 1995 issue of Our Valley, which highlighted, in part, local grassroots movers and shakers. “I’d rather be fishing.”

And that’s just where you will find Hunter, 65, of Eagle Point, today.

“That’s what I’m doing now. I’m just hanging out, doing some fishing and bird-watching,” Hunter says.

With the dams gone and in-stream water rights helping wild salmon, Hunter has quietly retired to fly-fishing the Rogue and elsewhere in between leading birding trips for local avian groups — though he still serves on the board of directors for the Rogue River Watershed Council and WaterWatch of Oregon.

Hunter landed in Medford in 1978 to get a broken fly rod fixed, then found a job and joined the Rogue FlyFishers Association before beginning a water-law career that saw victories early and late.

He helped draft Oregon’s once-controversial in-stream water rights bill that allowed state agencies and others to apply for water rights for in-stream use — rights that didn’t supersede previous irrigation rights but put fish in line to receive water when available.

He was also an early opponent of finishing Elk Creek Dam, whose construction was halted in 1986 to study the cumulative impacts of Lost Creek and Elk Creek dams on changing water temperatures and their effect on wild spring chinook salmon eggs.

But Hunter was the front-man for convincing the Grants Pass Irrigation District that it needed to replace Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue near Grants Pass with electric pumps to keep the district viable. A state review of GPID’s water rights showed that enough acreage had fallen out of the district that its new legal water right was less than needed for operating the old dam and its antiquated fish ladders.

Hunter worked 21 years on that project, pushing the rock uphill to get GPID to agree to the removal, then helping find the federal funding to make it happen.

As the Savage Rapids removal deal morphed into a very public debate, Congressional support for keeping the half-built Elk Creek Dam mothballed eroded, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notched it with nine blasts of dynamite beginning July 15, 2008, which opened a major upper Rogue spawning and rearing sub-basin to wild salmon and steelhead.

“Once the deal on Savage went through, it kind of changed the thinking on the Rogue,” Hunter says. “There was a feeling with these other projects that this can be replicated. A lot of great things happened, and they all kind of happened at once.”

On Oct. 9, 2009, Savage Rapids Dam gave way to Savage Rapids — the first time the Rogue had flowed freely through the site in 88 years.

Less than a year later, Aug. 11, 2010, Gold Ray Dam came down.

Hunter semi-retired after that, but he stuck around enough to facilitate the removal of two old dams from Evans Creek — Wimer Dam in April 2014 and Fielder Dam in July 2015.

“A lot of great things happened, Hunter says. “They all came together.”

Those goals that seemed at times so close yet so far 10 years earlier all came to be.

“I believed they would all happen a lot faster than they did,” Hunter says. “I think some of that naivety kept me going, because I thought they would happen so much quicker.”

Since then, the data on returning salmon and steelhead suggest that the dam-removal projects have made a difference. “It sure is great to go out to the river and see how it has reclaimed itself,” Hunter says. “It’s really rewarding to see that.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Bob Hunter makes a cast while fishing for steelhead at Rogue Elk Park. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune