Essential Paddling Guide: Olympic National Park’s Elwha River Running Wild Again

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Removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams marked the largest river restoration project in the United States. NPS photo.

Run, river, run. That was the sentiment in the fall of 2011 when work began on the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Taking down the 105-foot-high Elwha Dam and its sibling, the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam, was history in the making. With the Elwha River’s headwaters high in Olympic National Park, it was more than just the removal of concrete.

When the dams were built a century ago to generate power, they severed some of the largest salmon runs outside of Alaska. Now, with those barriers removed, native salmon fisheries are being reopened. Within months of the Elwha Dam’s removal, the first King salmon were spotted heading up the river into the park. When the river’s restoration is complete, five salmon species, in numbers upwards of 300,000 a year, are expected to have reclaimed the Elwha, a natural revival important to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe whose culture long has depended on a healthy fishery.

This restored fishery will carry economic pluses for surrounding communities, and provide prized recreational outlets for paddlers who once again will have a wild river to navigate. And, it will prove that dams aren’t always the solution. The research revolving around the Elwha River’s restoration— studies into sediments, fisheries, floodplain restoration, and nutrient loading—likely will benefit other areas where dam removal is being considered, or in process.

“The restoration of the Elwha River is an incredible opportunity to experience the rebound of an ecosystem and a culture 100 years after two dams deprived both of salmon, a vital resource to both,” says David Graves, Northwest Region program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The National Park Service has worked to reach this goal for more than 20 years since the passage of the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992. We applaud their perseverance.”

While NPCA’s staff has closely monitored the restoration project, the Elwha is not the only watery issue on its agenda. Here are some others:

* Expansion of Oregon Caves National Monument in Oregon will protect the headwaters of River Styx/Cave Creek that runs through the cave.

* The nonprofit parks advocacy group continues to oppose the rebuilding of the Stehekin River Road in North Cascades National Park, a project that would require moving a wilderness boundary and placing the realigned road on the existing path of the Pacific Crest Trail. “It’s an expensive ‘road to nowhere,’” says Mr. Graves.

* The office supports the Wild Olympics Wilderness & Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2014, legislation that will protect 19 rivers and their tributaries, including the Elwha River.

You can help by asking Congressman Derek Kilmer, D-Washington, to support increased funding for the National Park Service in time for the NPS centennial in 2016 so that parks will continue to be preserved and protected for the next 100 years and beyond. If you do, also thank him for introducing his Wild Olympics legislation that designate the length of the Elwha River as a Wild and Scenic River, forever preventing future dams.

Lakes, rivers, oceans. They’re all vital components of our National Park System, and all key to how those parks endure... and how we enjoy them. Working to keep them clean and healthy is in all our best interests.

Comments

What great news. Hopefully, publicizing the Elwha restoration (through articles like this one) will draw the public's attention to (and support of) the other projects mentioned above.