Editor's note: It was long in coming, but the official ceremony marking the dismantling of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams at Olympic National Park was decidedly short. But the future for the river and its watershed will be revolutionary. David Graves, the National Park Conservation Association's Northwest program manager, reflects on the event.
It often seems that concerned citizens must make sure their voices are heard to protect our national parks for future generations – to make sure national parks are still around for our children and grandchildren. But on rare occasions we can celebrate activities that will actually make the parks better than how we experienced them.
The removal of the two dams on the Elwha River is one of these rare opportunities. So in three, ten, 30, 100 hundred years from now, our children and grandchildren will find it incomprehensible that the Elwha River, teaming with salmon and other wildlife, was once choked by not one, but two huge dams preventing the salmon from reaching their final destination.
The impediment presented by those two dams impacted the cultural and spiritual traditions of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and hurt the ecosystem of Olympic National Park. The recent celebration was the right thing to do.
If you happened to be in Port Angeles, Washington, from September 15-18, you experienced the huge celebration that occurred in that community. The city of Port Angeles and others people from around the state and country celebrated the start of the largest dam removal in U.S. history. Each of the four days held numerous events focused on celebrating this monumental achievement.
A scientific symposium at Peninsula College on the 15th and 18th allowed attendees to hear presentations from numerous scientists on the wide range of research projects that have been conducted in the Elwha Valley prior to dam removal in order to monitor the changes the river will experience as the dams that have held it back for nearly 100 years are removed. It included presentations on fish and wildlife, sediment management, nearshore physical science, cultural and human studies, nearshore biology, and floodplain and reservoir revegetation.
Thursday concluded with a speech from environmental activist and founder of the Patagonia clothing company, Yvon Chouinard. He spoke about the importance of free flowing rivers and future opportunities for restoration through dam removal.
Friday continued with presentations and discussion between noted scientists from around the country and attendees. The research discussed during this symposium will allow the Park Service and other agencies working on this project to analyze the ability of the river to restore itself and ways in which humans can help.
Saturday was the start of dam removal. Elected officials and nearly 400 dignitaries gathered at the Lower Elwha Dam to see firsthand the actual start of the demolition. After hearing from many of the people involved in the nearly 25-year effort to remove the dams, including tribal members, elected officials, and agency heads, a large excavator began tearing down the first pieces of the massive dam.
Meanwhile, on the Port Angeles pier, hundreds of people showed up for Elwha Central, a festival celebrating the start of dam removal. Besides a live streaming video of the start of dam removal, this event included dozens of booths from nonprofit organizations and vendors focused on the Elwha River.
Food, live music, and family friendly activities carried on from 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. The celebration continued into the night with a taping of the syndicated radio show eTown, followed by afterhours music and dancing.
Sunday held opportunities for families and individuals to experience the Elwha up close and personal with ranger-led hikes along the river, to a new viewing platform from which you can watch dam deconstruction, and kid-friendly activities sponsored by NatureBridge.
As dam removal proceeds, anyone can see the progress by accessing webcams set up by the National Park Service. They can be viewed by visiting: http://www.video-monitoring.com/construction/olympic/js.htm
The weekend was a wonderful start to an incredible and monumental project 100 years in the making.