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The National Wildlife Federation Blog

The Nationwide Wildlife Federation Weblog

The Elwha. The story of the majestic river that bears this title, positioned on the northern tip of Washington’s Olympic Nationwide Park, is one that’s all too frequent in the present day. The one river on the Olympic Peninsula with all 5 species of Pacific salmon, the Elwha once teemed with an estimated 400,000 fish every year. Sadly, like so many western rivers, it succumbed to the pressures of fast regional growth and the burgeoning timber business within the early 1900s. A timber firm constructed the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams to supply power for his or her mills in Port Angeles, WA. This motion completely blocked steelhead behind a cement wall and restricted salmon entry to a mere 5 miles of spawning habitat–ensuing within the imminent extinction of the awe-inspiring, hefty Elwha chinook (which could weigh up to 100 pounds).

In a narrative that echoes the decline of different legendary western salmon fisheries over the past century, each species of migrating fish within the river instantly started to plummet towards extinction. Dramatic and fast decreases in salmon not solely devastated the general well being of the watershed however the longstanding traditions of Native American tribes within the space as effectively.

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the most important on the Olympic Peninsula, has relied on this river for tens of 1000’s of years as a supply of diet, livelihood, and commerce. Much more necessary: Salmon kind the foundation of many of their cultural beliefs. The “Elwha folks,” because the Tribe is thought, by no means authorised of the development of the dams and have been main the hassle to take away them and restore this watershed for ages.

In 2014, every part modified when rising strain led to the elimination of two dams. 

Free of the constraints of two large cement partitions, the Elwha River and its migrating fish have run free in its entirety, flowing 45 miles from its supply excessive within the Olympic Mountains all the best way to the Pacific Ocean.

Ten years after I first realized of this river, I lastly had the chance to take a stroll alongside three miles of its recently-restored banks to the Glines Canyon Overlook. It was accessible by automobile, offering Nationwide Park guests an awe-inspiring glimpse of humanity’s capability to manage mighty rivers behind large dam partitions. Now, guests overlook the stays of Glines Canyon Dam, surrounded by academic indicators in regards to the significance of its elimination — a sign of how our societal relationship with rivers is altering.

An overhead view of the Glines Overlook, with a shot of where the river meets a rocky moss bank.
Trying down from Glines Overlook. Picture by C Siegel Images.

These dams stood for a century, however by eradicating them, the area collectively determined to write down a brand new story for his or her river. As a substitute of accepting the super lack of a wholesome ecosystem and the advantages it supplies, the group selected to rewrite the story of the river and to put money into resilience. Not solely did salmon and steelhead rapidly rebound from perilous lows, however your entire net of life surrounding the river additionally rebounded. America’s solely aquatic songbird, the American dipper, has returned to the area in record numbers. A rush of recent sediment expanded estuary habitat alongside the coast: Shorebirds, crabs, clams, oysters, and insects are thriving. Within the floodplain, alder, cottonwood, maple, and willows have moved back, profiting from the wealthy, restored riverside habitat.

An American dipper on the water
American dippers, like this one, want wholesome river habitat to thrive. Picture by Larry Lamsa.

Standing on the overlook for the world’s largest river restoration challenge up to now, I used to be shocked to see enormous sections of the dam nonetheless standing, shocked by its sheer immensity. Whereas I may toss a ball throughout the slim canyon, wanting down at the place the dam wall was made my abdomen curl — a whopping 210 toes to the rapids that had reemerged beneath. But, I can’t assist however be impressed by the individuals who devoted their lives to restoring this river – by no means as soon as doubting that it could possibly be healed.

Remnants of the Glines Canyon dam wall. Picture by C Siegel Images.

As a Southwesterner with a parched coronary heart, I do know the very important significance of wholesome rivers and the plush life they help. I do know that the Elwha’s story of restoration and resilience doesn’t must be distinctive — we will use it as a street map to guard different rivers teetering on the brink.

Very similar to the Elwha, we have to look at the story of the decrease Snake River and act rapidly. Fifty years in the past, the U.S. authorities constructed 4 dams alongside the decrease Snake River in jap Washington to attach the small city of Lewiston, Idaho to the Pacific Ocean by way of barge. Much like the Elwha, salmon and steelhead returns instantly started to plummet towards extinction and in 1993, 13 completely different runs had been listed as endangered.

Identical to the Elwha, regional tribes have been fighting to free the lower Snake River and maintain the federal government accountable for his or her promise of offering ample harvestable salmon runs for many years. Conservation organizations and the fishing group have additionally been vocal advocates for restoring a free-flowing Snake. Sadly, simply as considerations about water quality and flood control drove opposition to revive the Elwha, considerations about energy production, transportation, and impacts to farmers have launched formidable limitations to restoring the decrease Snake River. 

The Elwha illuminates that these challenges may be overcome, that we will shift the story. The long run may be affluent for each folks and wildlife if we act deliberately and with urgency. Simply as tribes, group members, municipalities, and companies got here collectively to find innovative solutions to address the varied and valid concerns about removing the Elwha dams, we will discover complete options on the decrease Snake. We are able to develop progressive power programs utilizing wind and photo voltaic, programs that can present extra power than the decrease Snake River dams generate. We are able to put money into rail and street enhancements to permit farmers to entry markets with out utilizing barges. We are able to negotiate methods to make sure that river customers will not be impacted by dam elimination. It’s all doable if we work collectively.

Unlikely partners proceed to precise curiosity find a standard floor answer, however solely Congress will have the ability to decide the destiny of decrease Snake River salmon. In 1992, Congress signed “The Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act,” giving the Division of Inside inexperienced mild to revive the Elwha River and its native anadromous fisheries. We’d like our regional congressional delegates to pave the best way for related laws — authorizing a complete package deal of initiatives that restores a decrease Snake River that works for fish, farmers, and fishing communities.

The time has come to write down a brand new story for the decrease Snake River. As a substitute of a narrative of loss, we will write a narrative of group collaboration for restoration and restoration. We are able to write tales of resilience for our rivers: resilient fish, watersheds, and communities. We are able to write a narrative about how we discovered options to arduous issues and saved ourselves alongside the best way.

The Elwha supplies the roadmap — let’s put it to work and let it information us.

Restoring the decrease Snake River is necessary for wild salmon’s survival. Act now to avoid wasting our wild salmon. Take Action!


Betsy Emery is the Advocacy and Marketing campaign Supervisor at Nationwide Wildlife Federation’s Oregon affiliate: Affiliation of Northwest Steelheaders

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