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Elwha, A River Reborn

Author : Lynda Mapes
Published : 2013-03-05

The dismantling of dams along the Elwha River in, and just outside, Olympic National Park has been described as the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Trying to follow the story from afar is difficult, at best, which makes Elwha, A River Reborn, a very good book to read.

Through its 170 pages we're handed the legislative history behind efforts to remove the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams and brought to understand the importance of unleashing the Elwha River. Too, there are the stories pulled from the communities and individuals connected to the river, and those tied to the science conducted in conjunction with the dams' demolition.

The obvious aspect of the dam demolition is to make the river whole again, to allow native salmon that long ago would head up the river to lay their eggs to resume that instinctive behavior, to benefit the other species that live in, and around, the river: black bears, bald eagles, fishers, and cougars.

Coupled with the natural benefits of the river's restoration are the cultural benefits to both new visitors to the national park as well as to those who lived on this landscape long before the park was designated. When the Elwha Dam was built, it backed up waters that flooded the creation site of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe; when the dams came down, the waters returned to their channels and brought these sites back.

The Elwha restoration is also a cultural renewal for the tribe. Tribal members saw the prayers of generations of their elders answered in a ceremony celebrating the beginning of dam removal held above Elwha Dam in September 2011.

A richly illustrated, 170-page book co-published by The Mountaineers Books and The Seattle Times, Elwha was written by a Times staffer, Lynda V. Mapes, who has won awards for her science writing. Photography was provided largely by Steve Ringman, another Times staffer, who twice has won Newspaper Photographer of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association.

Together the two, aided enormously by the newspaper's long-running coverage of this story, have assembled a history of the dam demolition and all the stories -- cultural and resource -- that flow from it. And to accurately tell the story, Ms. Mapes had to recount the story of the dams' construction, a task she accomplished with the help of aged newspaper clippings and photos.

Building the dam was a daredevil exercise in rugged mountain engineering and improvisation. Logging-camp-style cook tents and bunkhouses and even a schoolhouse were thrown up in the woods to serve the needs of hundreds of workers, who got the job done using the tools they had and knew best: spar poles and rigging, picks and shovels. Photographs of construction show the near-madness of the risks, with workers swinging out over the mountain canyon on a simple open platform dangling from a rope, or toiling bareheaded and bare-handed on scaffolding without so much as a safety rope over the boiling rapids of the Elwha.

Though the first salmon already have been spotted moving upriver to spawn, a monumental achievement in itself, it will take decades for the river corridor to heal itself from being submerged for so long. And how that healing proceeds will be the stuff of another book.


Our family moved from the 'West(Wet) End" of the Olympic Peninsula (born in Forks, of Twilight fame, reared with Quileyute (La Push) kids), to Port Angeles, a few miles east of the Elwha, where I was raised with the Klallam (Elwha) folks, in the early 1960s. I now live 15 minutes west of the Elwha.

The river has been clear lately, and that suggests that 'something happened', at the upper dam/lake site. (The lower dam is all gone, and the lake bed recovering now.) There was a great deal of sediment remaining in the lake-channel, behind the 'stump' of the upper dam, over the winter and into this season. The plan was to sluice it down the river, over the summer, and remove the last of the structure, by fall. That has definitely not been completed, and it might not have even started: if it did, they didn't get far.

The Park offers an index page for 6 webcams and a blog, covering the dam-removal project. You can look directly at the physical situation.

The webcams are working, and excellent, but the blog hasn't been updated since the end of last year. It's often hard to know what's going on, even being 'right here'.

The upper lake, or more accurately its large load of sediment, was always the iffy part of this operation. Most, quite possibly virtually all of the heavier material is still sitting in the former lake-bed.

It's been a dry summer. Very little rain for a long time now. It is possible that low flow in the river has caused management of reconsider sending sediment down-channel at this time.

Sediment also wipes out fry, and suffocates eggs. We might be getting a one-year jump on rebuilding the runs, by not sluicing this year. Alternate years might work well. Spawners can survive in the turbidity, but not the babies. Toutle River, from the Mt St Helens volcano, not far away, gets spawners every season, for 30 years now. Zero reproductive survival.

Actually, in terms of salmon restoration in the Elwha, the timing is kinda fortuitous. Salmon, and especially Kings, have been recovering in our region, for some years now. Formerly, we watched as stocks plummeted, despite any & all efforts to mitigate the trend. Some believed that important elements of the overall pattern, were 'not at our end' and 'out of our control'.

Now, though, the oceanic end of the salmon-equation is looking up-beat. Formerly, streams & runs failed to recover or even reestablish, across long time-spans, even under 'total' protection. Now, they're coming back ... including in places where they are not given help, or even seem unsuitable!

There is little doubt or question that the fish will return. Actually, there were 'trapped' salmon populations both between the 2 dams, and above the upper dam, apparently 'all along' (tho we can't know for certain, that someone didn't occasionally dump fry or spawners).

No fish can get up the waterfall coming over what's left of the upper dam, at this time. I don't know its height, but it looks too high, for sure. There might be some spawner-hauling going on, which is a good idea.

Thanks for the local knowledge and perspective, Ted.

Here's a couple articles, also by Ms. Mapes, that may explain the sediment situation and the pause in dam removal. Because of an old surveying error, there was much more sediment than the original project schedule planned for:

There have also been recent problems with water facilities downstream:

Thanks for the good links, Tahoma. These are important 'base-line' topics that folks following the story will want to know about.

The accounts in both of these references are regarded as 'head-scratchers', and generate lots of enjoyable, if unproductive conversation.

Several different rounds of engineering surveys, and long-running scientific investigations, all took their own, independent GPS readings for their work. Yep, GPS, in the wilderness. In addition, Washington state has a university-corporate consortium that is doing targeted LIDAR scanning (with lots of cool derivative science work). A special scan was performed, for the whole Elwha dams removal setting. They pulled out all the stops, acquiring especially-high resolution (6 inches, iirc) for this entire data set. Sooo .... the 1976 map accounting generates some broad smiles.

The Elwha river is short, tight, fast, confined ... and drains raw, primeval, steep terrain. The whole river was a glacial lake, 12k ya. Terraces of sediment line it. Both dams were always operated as "run of the river", with no reservoir or surge capacity. As a result, big rain, snow, land-slides, erosion, leaf-fall & vegetation decay have caused water-quality problems, often for weeks or months.

Incidentally, resident bear and otter will only be able to eat so much spawned-out salmon. ;)

Although this is described as a "Park" project, there are actually several independent "active" stakeholders, and other independent power bases who are not stakeholders. They can have different goals, perspectives and interpretations.

Surely you don't mean to imply, Ted, that the government or the Park Service might issue a dishonest press release? ;o)

I'm wondering what the locals and Klallam tribal members think of the Park Service claiming to have no money to study transferring the drained Lake Aldwell parcel to the Elwha reservation?

Especially when they could afford a lavish invitation-only party to celebrate the start of this giant $350 million experiment.

Given the recent indignities the tribe has suffered, it seems to me that restoring this land to its rightful owners is the least the park and the country could do.

Yes, Tahoma, the Klallam (Elwha) Tribe plays a large role here.

Firstly, the satisfaction of their interest involves considerations that will pertain far beyond this site or river. Tribes all over the country often have interests & needs, especially for land. Many tribes assert that this or that place or resource, was sacred to their forebearers, etc.

The core reservation at the mouth of the Elwha is small. It's not a great piece of ground to do anything long-term or permanent on. In the old days, it was even less so ... before modern improvements were done, it would have been clear to those living there, that it was a compromised and marginal setting, in comparison with the locales of other villages. Only the strong & tough could make it there.

Throughout the modern era, the Elwha have addressed this problem, by seeking places to expand off the reservation. They have several 'satellite' bases, now. And in your first link we see:

.. [T]he tribe, if it comes to steward the lands, also would like to use some portions of the remaining property outside the archaeological sites and river corridor for housing or economic development...

It's not at all just about the sacred site. And this is a widespread dynamic, all across the country/globe.

So this comment doesn't become a book, I'm going to skip past several other meaningful angles, and come to what I consider the top issues on the totem pole.

I know the river valleys and forests and hills and mountains of the Olympic Peninsula & Park, very intimately. Far & wide, high & low, there is sign & indication that at one time, the human presence & usage of this region was vastly different than the orthodox account. It is a bit reminiscent of the Maya, found by explorers living as 'simple Indians', who did not know that the 'hills' in the jungles were the remains of a magnificence civilization, built & lost by their own ancestors. With caveats.

First caveat, our local indigenous people did & do know, that at one time the human presence here was vastly different than the official story.

Second, these cultures did not attain a high material civilization, as did the Maya. There are no industrial scale or type of remains to discover.

But it is evident that settlement & development was very heavy, and extended everywhere on this land. The valleys hosted large numbers of village sites, and the mountain meadows & trails were an integral part of extensive economic & cultural activity.

The straightforward explanation for our misrepresentation of the pre-Western human situation around here, is that European diseases found their way here at an early date, and wiped the population out. Before any ethnologist knew of their existence, and without the Natives themselves fully understanding what had happened.

These were seafaring cultures who could & did travel far up & down the coasts. Other maritime tribes had similar capabilities & habits. Disease was raging in the Spanish settlements of Mexico, in the very early decades of the 16th century, and it is not only feasible, but difficult to avoid that it rapidly spread up the Pacific coast.

By the mid-to-late 1500s, hundreds of longhouses were collapsing. Village clearings were beginning to return to temperate rainforest jungle. Survivors collected at the river-mouths. Interior/inland sites were let-go.

This depiction of the former status & events leads to certain conclusions that influence current affairs.

One, like other parts of North America, the Olympic Peninsula environment was managed & modified by humans, and had been for millenia. Like the Amazon or the Darrien, we misinterpret as untouched by humans, what was actually created by hundreds of generations of cultural effort.

Second, the remnant Tribal fragments we have today represent something quite different than we officially accord to them.

The assumptions we make in justifying the National Park system, and the Olympic National Park specifically, are often very wrong. The picture we have of the aboriginal Native American scene, is often a drastic distortion of the true picture. These two conclusions are aspects of the same thing.

Back to the here & now, and pragmatic, there is risk in making Native claims that could alienate the Public. This is a touchy issue. For Natives to lose public goodwill, would be a serious setback.

The way out of this bind or pickle, and an historic opportunity, is to embrace archaeology.

Our Natives, and many others, oppose & block real archaeological investigation. Presumably, they fear that close study & DNA will show that they have not been on the scene forever, and others occupied their roles & places, before them.

I don't think that's a real threat; not for their Identity, not with the Public, the Government, or with Science. It's pretty obvious, really, and it's just part of the human story. Everywhere. All along.

By embracing archaeology & science, I believe that it will become compelling that the Native story & heritage has been downplayed, and that a correction of our perception will be beneficial for them, and for the Public.

The Elwha are strong people. They have the personal & societal attributes, and they have the archaeological sites, and they have the relationships with the Park and the Government, to make a Big Move. They could accept the mantle of leadership here. Not just for our local situation, but very broadly in the Native scene.

Celebrate that newly-discovered 8,000 year old site. Invite the Park and University to resume a robust program of scientific investigation & research on the Olympic Peninsula, which has been stalled & stagnant now for decades. Get into the mind & heart of the strong people who are your ancestors, who did not shy away from challenge & opportunity.

The Elwha could become global leaders here. I think they would be magnificent.

Anyone who accepts Ted's point of view, shoud read 1491, a speculative analysis of what the Americas looked like the year before the arrive of Columbus. It is fascinating reading and the population figures the author extrapolates from the kind of evidence Ted cites are extraordinary. We will never fully know the toll that European diseases took on those with no immunity.


I did note the publicity for the new book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, when it came out in 2005. Its chief interest is the Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas.

I had previously looked into the talk about a large original population in North America, and found it dominated by forms of activism & protest that were not of interest. Thankfully, this encumbrance seems to be weakening . Additionally, making assertions about the population etc of a specific region, such as the Olympic Peninsula, is one thing, while trying to roll the whole continent into a unified conclusion, is a different undertaking, and not my task or objective.

Ancient populations were not 'even' across the continent. Some were in decline, without any European influence. Some were thin & sparse, period. But where things were going well, and where the resources existed to be managed in their support (the Olympic Peninsula is very rich country), large & dense populations - beyond our former ideas about Aboriginal culture - may have been more the norm than the exception.

It should be mentioned that the evolution of my ideas about the prehistory of the Olympic Peninsula were originally and to a degree remain ultimately based on the lowlands, outside-the-Park contexts of the Quileyute tribe, and their former territory. The 'case' for these neighbors of the Elwha is much more pronounced and clear, on currently Westernized ground. Not that pursuing a similar line with the Elwha won't work, because it does, and very well. But even to the casual eye, in accessible settings, the Quileyute picture is so blatantly inconsistent & incompatible with the orthodox picture, it forced me to reject that our "coastal maritime cultures" were mainly about the river-mouths.

The Elwha case has the big advantage or asset, over the Quileyute, that their former territory included extensive, intact (Elwha) riverine and upland/mountain meadows environments, that are now entirely within the Park. The Quileyute have valuable Park-contexts too, but once the Elwha & the Park 'give themselves permission', the Elwha/Klallam story as it unfolds within the Park, is going to be the same kind of 'orthodox deal-breaker' that the Quileyute story is, outside the Park.

Western settlement preferentially homesteaded and developed most of the abandoned living-contexts on the depopulated Olympic Peninsula, because they were inherently the nicer contexts, and had been kept burned-off as 'prairies', which readily became farmland.

Some Native prairies have failed to grow back in (which is quite odd, unexpected & mysterious, in these temperate rainforests), as we see verifiably, in the Park. Because the Elwha River runs way up into the Park, and their old territory included the adjoining mountain-meadows which were important to them, there is quite an extensive complex of both pristine valley and integral upland sites, in the public domain, protected.

This opportunity and its consequences if it were to be embrace, could be a justification for having formed this Park, on par with the overt environmental & habitat rationale. As our initial environmental interpretations turn out to be incorrect, flawed & problematical ... this newly-realized benefit could prove very timely.

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